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Wear Dark Glasses: The Relighting of Merce Cunningham’s Canfield

The décor for Canfield (1969) entered the Walker’s collection with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition in 2011. It is a rare Robert Morris sculpture, little-studied within his practice, and due to its size and logistical challenges, it was only used a handful of times by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before falling out of repertory. […]

Performing Arts Collateral Merce Cunningham Canfield 1969 set by Robert Morris

Merce Cunningham Canfield (1969) décor by Robert Morris

The décor for Canfield (1969) entered the Walker’s collection with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition in 2011. It is a rare Robert Morris sculpture, little-studied within his practice, and due to its size and logistical challenges, it was only used a handful of times by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before falling out of repertory. Following a six-month restoration project by the Walker’s registration and program services crew, the conserved décor is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time.

Stored in three original touring crates, the décor the Walker acquired was a mysterious vestige of the magic environment it was intended to create onstage. The 25-foot-tall column broke down into two joined five-foot units and a single five-foot unit of hammered aluminum. Years of disregard had yellowed the paint, which was still scratched and stained from its last performances.

The design for Canfield was entirely Morris’s own conception, as he would not have discussed or known the nature of the choreography before proposing his design to Jasper Johns, then the artistic director of Cunningham company. Morris’s original vision for the Canfield décor was to have the dancers wear leotards dyed with a reflective paint that would glow when caught by a beam of light. Admittedly, Morris was less than active in his creation of the work; after communicating his concept to Johns, Rick Nelson and James Baird—lighting designer and stage manager for the company, respectively—were put in charge of producing his idea. Nelson and Johns sourced airplane runway lights, which produced a blinding glare upstage when attached to a reflective scrim. Baird mechanized Morris’s column to travel slowly across the stage, from left to right, meaning that most of the choreographic activity occurred outside the lights’ glow, in shadowy darkness.

The exact mechanics of this early design were confounding to us at the Walker as we attempted to reconfigure the apparatus using as much of the original assemblage of pulleys, weights, and steel I- and T-beams as possible. Once successfully mounted in the Walker’s McGuire Theater and safely rewired by Egan Electric, the process of mechanizing the column began. At times the process of mounting the piece felt like a humorous contemporary take on the projects developed collaboratively by Experiments in Art and Technology.

Lead technician David Dick examines an early motor for Canfield Photo: Mary Coyne

Lead technician David Dick examines an early motor for Canfield Photo: Mary Coyne

It was apparent that, in order to properly restore Canfield, the column had to operate as it had in 1969. The traveling beam of light, as opposed to the column itself, was Morris’s vision for the design, and a stationary column hanging from the gallery wall would not have successfully conveyed Canfield’s purpose. Peter Hannah, from the Walker’s program services team, sourced a Teknic motor, which was programmed to traverse the I-beam, stop gently, and return in the opposite direction.

Now operational and installed as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time for the first time since its acquisition, Morris’s desired effect was visible. As an active design, rather than a stationary sculpture, the piece’s relationship to Cunningham’s work of that late 1960s emerged. Perhaps most interestingly, the decor shares a direct relationship to artist Francis Picabia’s stage design for the 1924 ballet, Relâche. Cunningham and Cage had seen René Clair’s film, Entr’acte, created for Picabia and Erik Satie’s ballet, in the late 1950s and, likely through their ongoing friendship with Marcel Duchamp over the next decade, processed the work as an important historical reference. Commissioned by Rolf de Mare for the Paris-based Ballets Suédois, Picabia’s design consisted of hundreds of white lights shining at the audience upstage of the performers. Combined with Satie’s score (it would be his final composition), the ballet was an early Dadaist celebration. The work’s title, which translates to “canceled” or the “show has been canceled,” made any scheduled performance of the work into a pun (the first advertised performance was indeed cancelled, adding to the play). Relâche’s disjointed relationship of dance to music, challenging décor, and seemingly non-narrative action on stage makes it an ideal progenitor of Cunningham’s own choreography.

1924 Relache_001

Relâche, 1924

1924 Relache_002

Relâche, 1924

In Walkaround Time (1968), Cunningham split the dance into two acts broken by an intermission, or entr’acte, during which the dancers remained on stage in view of the audience. Even Cunningham’s “strip tease,” in which he changes costume on stage following the entr’acte, coyly mimed from not only Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (a gender reversal of the bride being stripped bare by the bachelors) but also the male dancer’s onstage costume change from evening tails into white unitards in Relâche, a move responded to as radical in the 1920s.

An advertisement for the ballet carried Picabia’s own disclosure: “Above all, don’t forget dark glasses and something to plug your ears.”1 Writing in 1981 (over a decade after Canfield’s premiere), Rosalind Krauss considered the experience of viewing the ballet against such harsh lights an act of “terrorism” striking out against the audience. This dramatic reading is supported by first-hand accounts of the work; Paul Souday, reviewing the work, wrote that the lights—reflecting off circular mirrors against the wall behind the stage—were “unbearable” to look at, especially once reflected against the small mirrors decorating the dancer’s unitards.

Morris’s design for Canfield could be read as his riff on the historical work. In a reversal of Picabia’s conceit of a tableau against which the audience viewed the activity occurring downstage, Morris’s column, which continually moved across the stage, referenced his interest in actively altering the structures of time and space around the body through acute focuses on light and dark.2 Morris used a similar strategy—the dancer’s body against a dark ground—in his first dance work, Arizona, which premiered at the Judson Dance Theater in 1963. The dancer (Morris) wore white coveralls against a white column against a dark performance space. Spinning electric lights on ropes hung over the heads of the audience while, over the course of the piece, the stage area went dark. Morris would later consider:

the establishment of a focus shifting between the egocentric and the exocentric could be accomplished by swinging overhead in a fully lighted room a small light at the end of a cord. The lights in the room fade as the cord is slowly let out until, finally, in total darkness, only the moving point of light is visible as it revolves in the large space above the heads of the audience.

Cunningham (through artistic director Johns) was interested in these affronts to the body of the dancer and, perhaps even more so, that of the expectantly passive viewer.3 In Winterbranch (1965) Cunningham made his perhaps most challenging work to date, a foreboding choreography set to a grading score by La Monte Young. Cunningham opened the dance by moving onto the dark stage carrying a flashlight, the only source of light on stage. Automobile headlights placed on the stage lit the end of the dance; much of the dance occurred in shadows. Further adding to the sense of unrest, the dancers’ faces were marked with eye black (as used by sports players to minimize glare). Cunningham asked then-artistic designer Robert Rauschenberg to light the work and to “think of the light as though it were night instead of day. I don’t mean night as referred to in romantic pieces, but night as it is in our time with automobiles on highways, and flashlights in our faces, and the eyes being deceived about shapes the way the light hits them.”4 Rauschenberg, who had worked as the lighting designer for the company since 1954, as well as creating the costumes and stage decors, saw Winterbranch as his pièce de résistance in his contributions to lighting: the deep shadows and harsh lights contributed to the mood.

Winterbranch, 1965

Cunningham’s work often was met with resistance, understood as too difficult to watch. Since the 1940s, scores by John Cage, Bo Nilsson, and others were reported as an affront to the audience. To this day, many viewers comment on how Cunningham’s work is best enjoyed on mute or in silence. By 1965, Cunningham seemed prepared to embrace this challenge, intentionally drawing out what made the audience uncomfortable and thus more aware of their action as viewers of—and participants in—the work.

This planned affront to the audience members initially embraced by Cunningham in Winterbranch took on a sculptural form in the late 1960s. It is difficult not to look at the stage décor presented under Johns as in conversation with what Lucy Lippard termed “Dematerialized Art.” Andy Warhol’s helium-filled Silver Clouds (1966/1968); Bruce Nauman’s décor for Tread (1970), in which 10 fans blew directly outward form the edge of the proscenium stage onto the audience; and Morris’s column of light all capture the elements of Lippard’s dematerialized art. Morris dealt with this indefinite, or “dematerialized,” art not only in his inclusion of light and abstraction such as the time in his early performance works but also in his “sculptures” leading up to the commission for Canfield, including Steam (1967), an amorphous cloud of steam routed via pipes to small ruptures in a rock bed; Dirt (1968) a 2,000-pound pile of soil; and Continuous Project Altered Daily (1969), the latter of which notably was on view at the Leo Castelli Warehouse on Manhattan’s upper west side when Canfield premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Johns’s commissions during the last three years of his tenure as artistic director should be understood together, with Canfield at its heart, of the 1960’s preface Morris’s Bodymotionspacesthings at the Tate in 1971, an interactive sculptural installation that allowed him to translate this confrontation of sculpture in space with that of the viewer/participant.

Morris-Installation-Tate-Gallery-Bodyspacemotionthings-71

Watching the now-mobile Canfield column installed at MCA Chicago, generating a steady illuminated glow against the reflective wall (in galleries, walls stand in for upstage scrims) the sensorial aspect of Cunningham’s work of this period was readily palpable. Always ready to physically challenge an audience, Cunningham’s collaboration with Morris, although appropriately developed independent of each other, is a key project within the artist’s interest in the spatial and psychological relationship between dancer, viewer, and object.

Canfield is on view as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through April 30, 2017. The Walker component of the dual-venue Common Time exhibition closes July 30, 2017. 


Notes

1 391, no. 19, October 1924.

2 Morris articulates the relationship to light and dark to that of the temporal/spatial experience of the body in his seminal Notes on Dance, originally published in The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Winter, 1965): 179–180.

3 Although Cunningham was not making these choices directly, he clearly supported Johns’s partnerships with Nauman and Morris. When presented with an idea he wasn’t particularly keen on, Cunningham would famously suggest “maybe later,” rather than respond in the negative.

4 Merce Cunningham quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997).

Root of an Unfocus: On Cunningham, Cage, and “Common Time”

This essay is excerpted from “Root of an Unfocus,” published in the exhibition catalogue for the Walker-organized landmark exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view February 8–July 30, 2017. With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances […]

Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus New York City, 1944 Photo: Fred Fleh © Estate of Fred Fleh

Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus, New York City, 1944. Photo: Fred Fleh © Estate of Fred Fleh

This essay is excerpted from “Root of an Unfocus,” published in the exhibition catalogue for the Walker-organized landmark exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view February 8–July 30, 2017.

With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances that made up his first solo concert. The performance took place in New York City in 1944, five years after he moved there from Seattle to dance in the Martha Graham Company and two years into his partnership with composer John Cage. All six dances were prepared in collaboration with musical compositions by Cage, who also presented additional works of his own that April evening. For this do-it-yourself affair, Cunningham made his own costumes, Cage designed the program flyers, and both footed the bill to rent out the theater. More importantly, however, this self-acknowledged debut registers on a level beyond being brash and self-starting: it demonstrates just how early the duo’s radical approach to collaboration gained momentum. Unencumbered by expectations of accompaniment, their alliance was driven rather by a principle of simultaneity and independence for dance and music within a shared register. For Cunningham, this moment was the beginning of a career that operated out of a “root of an unfocus” that was based in collaborative work and would stretch over six decades of restive creation.

Cunningham later told an interviewer that Root of an Unfocus was made “when I was still concerned with expression. It was about fear.”1  Even so, the dance marked a crucial moment of development for both Cunningham and Cage, as it pivoted around the notion that time, rather than melody or narrative motif, should constitute the underlying relationship between dance and music. Having agreed on a durational structure where sound and movement would align only at the transitions between the dance’s three sections, Cunningham and Cage were free to create independently of one another, with their shared aesthetic only fully revealed in the performance itself. The radically deconstructed space and time that began with this work was subsequently inscribed as existing in between dance and music.

As Cunningham told it to author Calvin Tomkins as early as 1962, the ripple effect implicit in this first work’s title quickly became concentric and widening:

The main thing about it—and the thing everybody missed—was that its structure was based on time, in the same sense that a radio show is. It was divided into time units, and the dance and music would come together at the beginning and the end of each unit, but in between they would be independent of each other. This was the beginning of the idea that music and dance could be dissociated, and from this point on the dissociation in our work just got wider and wider.2

This dissociative experiment would be developed into a praxis that would not only endure but also thrive over nearly six decades of shared work and hundreds of collaborations across disciplines. The “root of an un-” swiftly became a network, circulating what Cunningham would later describe as “a shared history that reflects to me a change or enlargement of the underlying principle that music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.”3

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College, was the catalytic engine, an unparalleled and unique nexus of collaborative practice oscillating within the frame of choreography that continues to reverberate today. By dismantling hierarchies and conventional boundaries, Cunningham and Cage’s “common time” made possible an expanded field of dance, music, moving image, and visual art based in their own brand of recombinatory aesthetics. Their concept can almost be seen as a how-to guide for creating vital new forms that are rooted in the enduring scenic space of a new common time.

With common time as the core ethos of their work, Cunningham and Cage overturned a succession of conventions during their first decade together, in the process opening up the fertile and nervy ground from which MCDC emerged. With a propulsive imperative that demanded what Cunningham called “a continuing flexibility in the relation of the arts,” their collaboration shape-shifted the landscape of modern art as no other had ever done, creating a nearly cellular approach to recombinant composition methods.4  It was understood from the outset that MCDC could expand but also contract, serving as an inter- platform and fluctuating organism for unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary experimentation. Through its many iterations, the company and its network of collaborators maintained an attitude of openness to change (and changes). Exits and entrances abound. Working within and through common time demands acceleration, deeply focused technique, and a highly adaptive use of version and variation that Cunningham described as ongoing: “We are involved in a process of work and activity, not in a series of finished objects.”5

Cunningham’s own retrospective assessment of Root of an Unfocus, which he acknowledged “still worked with expressive behavior,” benefits from a comparison with two solos created ten years later that taken together show the expanding nature of common time over these pivotal early years of collaboration.6 The differences between them reveals the crucial role “chance operations” (Cage and Cunningham shared the use of this term) played at this time in expanding and focusing the evolution of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary. In Untitled Solo (1953), Cunningham first used the ritual of the coin toss to determine, through chance, the outline for a sequence of isolated movements that could be combined with unexpected, fresh results. “[Using chance means] I also began to see that there were all kinds of things that we thought we couldn’t do, and it was obviously not true.… If you try it, a lot of the time you can do it, and even if you can’t, it shows you something you didn’t know before.”7 Untitled Solo follows Cage’s first use of chance in composing Sixteen Dances (1950–1951), the sound accompaniment for Cunningham’s Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, a breakthrough that Cage saw as moving him outside of inclination, or predetermined creation. As he put it, “I reached the conclusion I could compose according to moves on these charts instead of according to my own taste.”8 By applying chance operations to the core of their respective compositional practices, Cage and Cunningham moved beyond taste and toward unexpected amplitude, folding time in on itself in the process. For Cage, this move was directly related to his increased use of electronics and the micro-exploration of sound within their collaborations during the 1950s. For his part, Cunningham experimented first on himself, and then on the body of a company. The space between nerve and expanded gesture opened up.

In Changeling (1957), the embodied motif of chance concatenation moving against memory and familiarity is taken even further than in Untitled Solo. Ten minutes in length, Cunningham’s performance expresses the dynamic of a “changeling,” a being masquerading as human but with otherworldly presence. The incredibly difficult choreography, in which possible movements for head, torso, arms, and legs were determined separately, exemplifies his striking ability as a performer. Disassembled into isolated phrases only to be recombined via a series of coin tosses, the movements contort in a push-and-pull tension when fit together.


Changeling is one of Cunningham’s most enigmatic early solo dances. Capturing an essential dissolution at the heart of acutely observed gesture, it was concerned with what Cunningham called “the possibility of containment and explosion being instantaneous.”9 In just a single sequence, Changeling encapsulated the unique compression central to the elaboration of his choreography as a recombinatory aesthetic. (Indeed, Cunningham would often share with friends that he was convinced he himself was a changeling.)10 Recently discovered film footage of the dance, shot during a 1958 European tour by the company, displays Cunningham’s virtuosic technical skill and daring decentralization of the body, a mix that would characterize his style as a solo performer and choreographer from then on. Now free to combine ordinary movement drawn from everyday observation and social behavior with modern and classical dance technique, Cunningham’s choreography embraced a new hybridity and acceleration through a field of wide-ranging quotation fueled by chance operations.

As the technique and rigor of Cunningham’s choreography intensified, so did the level of his experimentation. His training in ballet and modern dance mixed with his direct experience of a grab bag of American vernacular dance forms from vaudeville, dance hall, soft-shoe, solo dances from the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, and beyond. Just as he disrupted hierarchies among dance styles early on, his company further jettisoned conventional understandings of décor and the musical score as backdrop and accompaniment. Stage space was decentered in favor of a simultaneity that maintains music, dance, and décor in a precarious proximity that nevertheless refuses to ever integrate. Each discipline operates uneasily beside the other.

During three formative summers at Black Mountain College in 1948, 1952, and 1953, Cage and Cunningham were exposed to an impressive array of artists, composers, designers, architects, and writers, and experienced a flurry of approaches to radical pedagogy. Embracing an evolving praxis, Cunningham himself began to offer regular classes in dance technique in New York in 1951, while Cage taught musical composition at the New School of Research for four years beginning in 1956. Playing an increasingly pivotal role in the burgeoning downtown New York art scene, Cage and Cunningham directly influenced the most risk-taking and influential art movements of the era in no small part through their own distinctive “how to” experimental pedagogies, from Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater to Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) and a remarkable group of the next generation of innovators, including George Brecht, Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn, Deborah Hay, Takehisa Kosugi, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. But nowhere was this ever-widening influence more profound than within the company itself.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed by Cunningham after an exhilarating summer at Black Mountain College in 1953. He had brought to that session a group of young dancers who had been studying with him off and on in New York; among them was Carolyn Brown, who would be his principal dancer for more than fifteen years. The founding of the company happened a year on from the previous summer session at Black Mountain, during which Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, or “Theater Event #1,” as Cunningham referred to it, had taken place. Cunningham described this now infamous and influential piece rather nonchalantly: “The audience was seated in the middle unable to see everything that was happening. There was a dog that chased me around the arena. Nothing was intended to be other than it was, a complexity of events the spectator could deal with as each chose.”11 Reflecting as it does an increasingly important expectation of the spectator to “unfocus” their attention to the work and learn to follow simultaneity itself, the pedagogical stakes were heightened, plentiful, and in motion at the time the company was formed.

Robert Rauschenberg Merce Cunningham and John Cage observing Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton in class, Third Avenue studio, New York City, circa 196, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage observing Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton in class, Third Avenue studio, New York City, circa 196, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Indeed, many of Cage’s students at the New School later noted that they received and rejected his teaching in equal measure, which was exactly the responsive quality that he looked to instill and expose thorough his teaching. Cage’s radical acceptance of incident and duration, along with a complex, multilayered use of chance, cultivated what he described as “response ability” in the active listener.12 To cultivate response ability is not to court followers to a method but to spur new levels of acceptance and residual impact, something that both Cage and Cunningham lived by in their pedagogical approaches. Cunningham’s students and company dancers alike worked through and off of the demanding focus of his approach. As Yvonne Rainer wrote in a third-person passage recounting her experience working and studying with Cunningham, this was both exhilarating and something to contend with or possibly counter. “ ‘You must love the daily work,’ he would say. She loved him for saying that, for that was one prospect that thrilled her about dancing—the daily involvement that filled up the body and the mind with an exhaustion and completion that left little room for anything else. Beside that exhaustion, opinion paled. And beside that sense of completion, ambition had to be especially tenacious. But while absorbing the spirit of his genius she fought its letter.”13

This tension between Cunningham, the demands of his technique, and the rigorous level of challenge that members of his company regularly remark upon is no doubt part of what led so many dancers who were talented choreographers in their own right to work with MCDC over the years. The list includes Rainer but also Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton, key participants along with Robert Rauschenberg in the Judson Dance Theater (1962–1964), which brought its own radical questioning to the legacy of Western dance.

Even as any historic consideration of the use of everyday observed gesture or task-based movement (as Judson collaborators would describe it) has to begin with Merce Cunningham’s experiments, it was clear to Cunningham himself that the terrain of common time within choreographic inquiry required discipline and training with inter- forms that was demanding and expansive. As he reflected on the period, Cunningham contrasted his own trajectory with that of the Judson Dance Theater: “It all struck me as very limited. The instant they attempted something outside that, it didn’t work because they didn’t have the training. I was always interested in all kinds of movement. They said no to this and no to that, and my idea was to say yes—not to be fixed but to be flexible and open.”14 His own trajectory, by contrast, had been a polymorphous and constantly shifting path of acceleration and increased amplitude.

Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954 Photo: John G. Ross

Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954 Photo: John G. Ross

Cunningham’s permissive yet rigorous style was not lost on the younger collaborators who joined MCDC, including the company’s first art director, Robert Rauschenberg. Minutiae (1954), Rauschenberg’s first collaboration with Cunningham, initiated a fertile decade of work together that would continue through MCDC’s 1964 world tour. Rauschenberg’s décor for Minutiae, which is considered his first Combine, premiered in the dance weeks ahead of his exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, a solo show that featured a group of so-called Red Paintings and important early Combines such as Charlene (1954). In his invitation to Rauschenberg to participate in the company by making something for the “dance area” of what was then an unfinished piece of choreography, Cunningham gave the younger painter scant direction, noting only that it might be something with passages, and that perhaps “we could move through it, around it, and with it if he liked.”15 Years later, when further describing the highly independent collaborative work of Minutiae to Calvin Tomkins, Cunningham remembered the collaboration with charming matter-of-factness:

Bob had made a very beautiful object that hung from the ceiling, with ribbons trailing from it. I knew right away it wouldn’t do because it couldn’t be installed in the sorts of places we performed in then—college auditoriums where there were no flies to hang anything from. Bob understood at once. He’s always been completely practical in his work with us. He said he’d do something else, and what he did the second time was really wonderful. It was a freestanding construction in two sections, so the dancers could go in between them, and there was a lot of collage. I loved it because you couldn’t say just what it was. One critic, after the first performance of the piece, complained for this reason. She said she didn’t know whether it was supposed to be a bathhouse at the beach or a fortune-teller’s booth, or what. That was just what I liked about it.16

The décor was small and mobile enough that it could be deconstructed and carried with the company in John Cage’s Volkswagen bus, the chief method of transportation for the young company at the time. Minutiae’s choreography, meanwhile, was made of complex and detailed chance-derived sequencing, inspired by the small, short, abrupt movements Cunningham observed in people walking the streets of New York, while the accompanying music was an existing work by Cage, Music for Piano 1–20 (1952/1953). Pleased with the collaboration, Cage and Cunningham invited Rauschenberg to join the company as its first art director, expanding the common time of the company to a triangulated form that would continue from then on. Cunningham recounted this turning point succinctly: “So there were now three elements, the movement, the sound, and a visual action.”17

Robert Rauschenberg Décor for Minutiae 1954/1976 oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror and string, on wood 84 ½ x 81 x 30 ½ in. (214.63 x 205 x 77.47 cm) Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, Gift of Jay F. Ecklund, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation, Agnes Gund, Russell Cowles and Josine Peters, the Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Dorothy Lichtenstein, MAHADH Fund of HRK Foundation, Goodale Family Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, David Teiger, Kathleen Fluegel, Barbara G. Pine, and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011.

Robert Rauschenberg, Décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976. Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

The full network was now up and running, neatly captured in a Cage aphorism that could read as a motto for the company: “Time … is what we and sounds happen in. Whether early or late: in it. It is not a question of counting.”18 At the onset of the 1960s, MCDC found an increasingly global reach as it performed in a variety of international settings and incorporated a wider range of collaborators and dancers within the core of the company. With an ever-refined mobility and provisional acuity in regard to flexible set, costume, and sound design, the company continued to push the boundaries of stage space.

Notes

1 Merce Cunningham and Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance (New York: M. Boyars, 1985), 79.

2 Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde: Duchamp, Tinguely, Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 245.

3 Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1992), 139.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Merce Cunningham quoted in Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.

7 Cunningham and Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, 81.

8 Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 105.

9 Merce Cunningham quoted in David Vaughan, “Changeling,” Dance Capsules, accessed September 13, 2106.

10 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 102.

11 Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, 139.

12 Branden W. Joseph “Chance, Indeterminacy, Multiplicity,” in The Anarchy of Silence, ed. Julia Robinson (Barcelona: Museu Dart Contemporani de Barcelona, 2009), 228.

13 Yvonne Rainer, “This Is the Story of a Man Who …” in Merce Cunningham, ed. Germano Celant (Milan: Charta, 1999), 120.

14 Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.

15 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

16 Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Deckle Edge, 2005), 93–94.

17 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

18 John Cage, “45′ for A Speaker,” in John Cage, Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 151.

Interiors and Identity: Fionn Meade on Question the Wall Itself

Question the Wall Itself—on view November 20, 2016 through May 21, 2017—examines the ways that interior spaces and décor can be fundamental to the understanding of cultural identity. Here, in an excerpt from his essay in the catalogue (available Spring 2017), Fionn Meade, who curated the exhibition with Jordan Carter, discusses the show’s central concepts.  […]

Installation view of Nina Beier's China in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Installation view of Nina Beier’s China in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Question the Wall Itself—on view November 20, 2016 through May 21, 2017—examines the ways that interior spaces and décor can be fundamental to the understanding of cultural identity. Here, in an excerpt from his essay in the catalogue (available Spring 2017), Fionn Meade, who curated the exhibition with Jordan Carter, discusses the show’s central concepts. 

Recasting our conception of interior architecture and décor, Question the Wall Itself explores artistic practices and artworks that inhabit and articulate the spaces between artwork, prop, and set or stage. From the evocation of an anteroom or entryway to such unlikely interiors as a prison cell or commode, to a library, a showroom, and even a winter garden, the exhibition hosts a series of psychologically charged, politically animated, and gendered interiors hailing from a truly international array of cultural contexts, including the Middle East, South America, Europe, the United States, and beyond. Exploring how we trace, embellish, and disentangle social conventions, habits, and cultural codes, the exhibition reveals a public and critical dimension of artists’ engagement with interiors since the 1970s. Serving as a platform for what can at first glance appear to be intimate, hermetic, and even personal modes and moods of artistic address, décor reveals itself to be a resilient and persuasive minor key for artistic criticality and questioning the contemporary.

Suggesting a new hybridity that emerges from contemporary rather than modernist aesthetics, social and historical commentary is embedded within presentations that recall the performative staging of a film set or a showroom, with styles borrowed from house and history museum displays and even social clubs. Through artistic procedures of defamiliarization, fragmentary contextualization, and the use of provisional personae and storyboard-like plot development, the viewer passes through a series of interiors in which the active construction of identity holds uneasy sway over the place of exhibition making itself, with the viewer implicated in an unfolding drama, whether as protagonist or mere passerby. This staging is cinematic but not cinema, house museum but not museum.

Installation view of Marcel Broodthaers’s Dites partout que je l’ai dit (Say Everywhere I Said So) (1974) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

One of the exhibition’s guides and tutelary spirits is the Belgian artist and poet Marcel Broodthaers, who turned the phrase esprit “décor” in reference to his late series of mostly room-scale interior artworks known as the Décors. In 1975 he explained, “I have attempted to articulate differently the objects and paintings realized at various times between 1964 and this year, in order to form the rooms in a ‘décor’ spirit. That is to say reinstating to the object or painting with its real use. Décor not being an end in itself.”1 Beginning in earnest in the early 1970s, Broodthaers deployed décor as critical stagecraft and an approach to mise-en-scène, creating a series of highly designed and convention-altering spaces that prompted questions, among them: Am I looking at art, product, or an image-language mix from an advertorial or political campaign? What is this mix of nationalistic emblems, comic props, and poetry? Why does this feel globalized and nostalgic at the same time? Broodthaers offered up a mixed-up sociopolitical space and framework in between private and public, commercial and intimate, outward facing and by invitation, status revealing and eccentric, a more resilient border space, an interior within critique. The format of the interior that emerges here is a space of choice and decision making, a space of the artist-curator but also of the display of taste, a portrait of sensibility and identity constructed.

Installation view of Walid Raad’s Letters to the Reader (2014) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

With Walid Raad’s Letters to the Reader (2014), the feel of nonintegration and epochal slippage extends to the future of Arab art as his speculative museum fiction unfolds in a sequence of eleven partitioned or excerpted wall fragments purportedly taken from displays at new museums of modern Arab art around the world. Raad’s speculative panels, painted in varying colors and tones, each contain a different laser-cut shadow-like form embedded in the center, accented by a different style of applied marquetry along the base, suggesting parquet floor patterns sampled from different museums.  Letters to the Reader is itself part of an ongoing larger project, Scratching on things I could disavow, begun by Raad in 2007, that inquires into and critically engages the emergence of new platforms for framing and valuing modern and contemporary Arab art. By addressing and questioning an accelerated present in which some of the largest and most expensive new contemporary art museums are being built in the Arab world, Raad’s museum fiction cuts into the walls themselves of the speculative museum futures for modern and contemporary art.

Installation view of Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, sentimento de classe (Nostalgia, a class sentiment) (2012) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

In Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, sentimento de classe (Nostalgia, a class sentiment) (2012), an uncooperative design traces onto the wall itself the second thoughts and provocative manifesto-like stances of two radical architectural thinkers active in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century. Taking as his point of departure a photograph of the entryway of an exemplary modernist two-family house built in the 1960s in his home city of Recife, de Andrade mimics the geometric pattern of the tiled entryway connecting the two dwellings and linking them to the street. The ideological aspirations of this private and public modernist foyer become touchstones for de Andrade’s room-scale installation in which the patterns formed by 340 red, yellow, blue, and black fiberglass tiles both reveal and obscure vinyl wall text with quotations from the artist and architect Flávio de Carvalho and the architect Marcos Vasconcellos. Creating an antistyle that combines competing designs, the artist lays bare the cultural aspirations and social fissures that continue to ripple through Brazilian city life, captured in a passageway.

Installation view of Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House (2013) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House (2013), modeled on the dimensions of the salon or living room of the architect Adolf Loos’s 1930 Villa Müller in Prague, is a makeshift, scaled-down version of Loos’s original footprint. McKenzie’s trompe l’oeil rendering mimes Loos’s signature use of green Cipollino marble within the villa’s living room to outline and frame the primary social space in one of his signature buildings. But here the approximation is unfaithful and knowingly awkward. Rather than homage, Loos House is an uneasy quotation of Loos’s concept of Raumplan, or spatial plan, wherein interiors look down, up, and askance into the next room and there are constant shifts in volume and level as you cross over a given threshold in the interconnected complex of rooms.2 McKenzie appears to approach architecture, and here a pinnacle of interior architecture, with exactly the confidence of occupying a caesura in that her work posits and frames the empty volume of the Loos House Raumplan as yet open to questioning and repurposing. The use of décor as decoy reveals McKenzie’s interest in the unfaithful copy as a form of critique, and questions the reverence within the reference, framing an uneasy time and place, with family dysfunction and sexual subcurrents suddenly visible and readily traced.

Installation view of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s Here and There (1978/2016) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

For Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation Here and There (1978/2016), an anteroom was pitted against its counterpart, the neutral gallery space, disrupting viewers’ expectations as they turned the corner in what was sequenced as a domestic entryway. A series of overlapping panels leaned against the gallery walls, each picturing a provisional character captured in different domestic scenes and poses. A back is turned, hands reach for a teacup, a shadow is elongated by the setting sun coming in through a window: the effect is like that of a storyboard held in reserve and only partially revealed. Making a distinctive style of the chaptered sequencing familiar from showrooms, Chaimowicz offers us a showroom of the uncanny in his décor, the familiar yet “violated, modified” returns continually and is done with incredible élan. Playing off the familiar consumerist behavior of flipping through a magazine for the bits and pieces you might fancy or passing quickly from one display to another that catches the eye, Chaimowicz is a master of inverting consumerist taste. He achieves a disorienting feeling of recall yet dislocation.

Installation view of Alejandro Cesarco’s Index (With Feeling) (2015) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Existing as the index for an unrealized novel titled Crocodile Tears, Alejandro Cesarco’s Index (With Feeling) (2015) weaves a complex network of associations and seductive pairings simply through the proximity and promiscuity of the index. The absence of the body, in this case the novel itself, is substituted for by an index of artistic, literary, and theoretical references that speak symptomatically and playfully to one another, detailing aspirations, influences, fears, and even pretensions while inviting readers to imagine their way through the architecture of the unwritten yet mapped-out labyrinth. For his most in-depth index to date, Cesarco has made a sequence of indexes to imaginary books dating back more than fifteen years, tracing a form of self-portrait and, more to the point, a compressed interior portrait of artistic sensibility. As he has described it, the column-like infrastructure of the index allows for a “text that is a half-way biographical and half-way theory text; it is extremely personal, at times even hermetic, yet full of clichés.”3 Cesarco’s Index traces and makes present the objective construction of sensibility, laying out an interior architecture within the subjective.

Installation view of Tom Burr’s Wall (1995) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

 

Tom Burr’s Wall (1995) gives spectral presence and overlapping temporality to the disappearance of the sex industry from Manhattan’s Times Square neighborhood at the time. As part of a gentrification campaign engineered by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the peep shows, sex clubs, and gay theaters that populated Midtown were shuttered in an effort to make Times Square a homogenized tourist destination. A corner of the gallery demarcated by gray paint and a string of blue lights that conjure the abrupt turn of an entryway into a sex shop, Wall marks the outline of a threshold to a sexual interior, a boundary to the illicit. The installation at the Walker is accompanied by a nonarchival sequence of Polaroids taken by Burr in preparation for this exhibition as bare décor. Shown more than twenty years after they were taken, the photographs serve as a faded, quivering index and archive of an economy and subculture cleansed from the center of Manhattan.

Installation view of Tom Burr’s Zog (a series of setbacks) (2016) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Wall is paired here with a newly commissioned sculpture, Zog (a series of setbacks) (2016), which finds Burr responding to and echoing the zigzag design of the architect Philip Johnson’s IDS Center building in downtown Minneapolis. The signature element of the building is what Johnson called the “zog,” a distinctive step-back design that effectively creates a series of corner offices, and thereby spaces of power and validation, on several floors of the skyscraper. Transposing the overlapping sequence into a large-scale sculpture in which photographic images are embedded in the “interior,” Burr surfaces the contradictory nature of the unfolding stack, or zog. By repeating the previously singular gesture of the zog and populating it with an eros-laden yet interrupted sequence of images, Burr ruptures the idealized space of power.

Installation view of Paul Sietsema’s Empire (2002) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Paul Sietsema’s film installation Empire (2002) pivots on the questioning of representation and value as it presents a layered depiction of the interior of the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg’s Manhattan living room. Having created a model of the critic’s space as it was shot and glamorized in the pages of Vogue in 1964, Empire quickly begins to layer in on itself, demonstrating a formal principle of comparison and contrast that inducing a tension between incident and acutely planful correlation that is characteristic of much of his work.

Prior to the reveal of Greenberg’s art-filled living room, Empire holes its way through a space reminiscent of the grotto-like cavities and interiors within the architect and artist Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House (1947–1960). Sietsema intercuts and layers spiraling shots that pass through perforated cave-like passages of a kindred model constructed by the artist to echo what appears as a primal and impossible interior. Providing episodic counterpoint are two further model interiors, also constructed by Sietsema: the interior of Greenberg’s Manhattan living room, based on the magazine spread, and a rendering of the ultimate period room, the Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. The latter is an eighteenth-century Rococo oval salon that is pristinely preserved, with gilded carvings and embedded mirror panels, within the now state-owned complex that also houses part of France’s national archives. While the former represents a zenith of a particular moment in American abstract painting asserting its vanguard status—including the implicit economics and power dynamics of the era’s signature art critic trumpeting his impressive private collection of representative works from the moment—the latter salon stands in for the unchanged, unaltered, historicizing period room emblematic of an aesthetic era synonymous with national style. The meticulous comparative nature of Empire approaches an ethnographic aesthetic in Sietsema’s film as epochal time becomes prismatic.

Installation view of Nina Beier’s China in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

In her ongoing body of work China, Nina Beier pairs hand-painted porcelain vases with hand-painted porcelain dogs ordered from separate custom companies in Italy but chosen to be roughly the same size. Beier cuts jagged holes into each, creating a highly artificial effect that mimics “a form of logic from cartoons, where there is no difference between the abilities of dogs and vases,” as the artist has described the purebred face-off. Cultivated style and pedigree variation are brought into comic adjacency and punched through with a cartoon-like immediacy. The aesthetic of ornamentation achieves a new pop criticality as the hole punched into the dog reveals it to be an empty decorative surface, while the vase loses its function as a vessel and flattens into nothing more than pattern. As Beier has stated, “Both of them disclose their empty inner anatomy and somehow meet, in between image and object.”4

Installation view of Nick Mauss’s F.S. Interval II (2014) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Temporal distancing meets formal device in the mirror panel paintings of Nick Mauss, whose deportations and refractions of viewing were initially conceived as framing devices for a mini-exhibition organized by the artist within a retrospective otherwise devoted to the American painter, poet, and stage designer Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). Embedded within the 2014 exhibition at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Mauss became surrogate and positioned his paintings as “intervals” alongside a selection of archival material devoted to Stettheimer’s poetry. Opening up the room to reflection and projection by a viewer, Mauss’s mirror paintings elaborated a consistent motif within Stettheimer’s paintings, that of still-life compositions of flowers. Mauss elaborates on Stettheimer’s idiosyncratic view of still-life paintings becoming like portraits of people in one’s life just as people take up floral attributes, whether individuals, lovers, groups of friends, or professional associates. The resulting composition, F.S. Interval II (2014), is a multipanel door-scale mirror painting reminiscent of the folds in a dressing room mirror. Allowing for a multiperspective reflection of the viewing body, it is both refracted homage to Stettheimer and an extension of the exhibition space. The painting depicts bodies and abstract marks but also the spectator’s reflection in a prismatic embrace, an effect that the artist has described as “a chamber full of disconnected individuals and affects still somehow being together.”5

Installation view of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016) and Chômage Technique (2016) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Regularly hemming a performing body into an interior, Shahryar Nashat’s moving image works fragment the body into an at times claustrophobic frame, revealing context and task only through a repetitive emphasis on highly choreographed micro-gestures and heightened Foley sound. Nashat’s survey of a highly functioning yet partial body prompts a new awareness of a common experience, the newly prosthetic digital augmentation of contemporary life, in the installation Present Sore (2016). As the view of Present Sore moves incrementally upward, a detail image of Paul Thek’s sculpture Hippopotamus (1965), from the Technological Reliquaries series, interrupts. Seemingly throbbing behind Plexiglas, the body is put twice at remove—walled off and fragmentary—yet maintaining the wounded technology of its time, the violent trace. The screen multiplies and divides as the emphasis and focus on heel, wrist, knee, hip, neck, or shoulder—places where movement is most implicit in classical figurative sculpture—become newly cosmetic, motorized, and wounded, and thereby a composite body emerges, one fit for a high-definition time.

The pedestal or base that would hold such an exemplary figure in classical or figurative sculpture—think the erotic writhing and athletic twists and turns of Rodin—is retired by Nashat in favor of a digital composite of the virtual body. Giving the support structure of the plinth a newly decorative role as bystander to the augmented screen representation, he refers to the pedestals as having been laid off until further notice, titling his work Chômage Technique (2016), which indicates a workforce now redundant. With a playful correspondence made between pedestal and foot, the support structures that keep things upright, Nashat leans his pedestals into a nearly supine position, in which they become the figurative work rather than the armature. The masquerade is heightened via faux-marble finishes and bright coloration as Nashat’s benches and columns dress up, playing the parts of voyeur and passerby.

Installation view of Danh Vo’s all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble (2009-) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Danh Vo’s all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble (2009–) parcels out the ultimate resting place and décor, the grave. A black marble tombstone is placed in the gallery (according to the artist’s instructions) and adorned and incised with gold lettering bearing the phrase “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” the chosen epitaph of the English Romantic poet John Keats. Promised in the exhibition narrative and deed (and thereby within Question the Wall Itself) to serve as the gravestone for the artist’s father, Phung Vo, on his death, all your deeds will be transferred to Copenhagen at that time but remain in the Walker’s permanent collection until then. At the close of the exhibition, all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble will be transferred to the upper garden of the Walker’s campus within a copse of trees, waiting in the hold, in reserve, for its ultimate transfer to Copenhagen, while inside the museum the empty vitrine is its dialogue partner, content at present to question the wall itself.

Notes

  1. Marcel Broodthaers, “Notes on the Subject,” trans. Jill Ramsey, in Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Polígrafa, 2012), 489.
  2. The theatrical impulse within Loos’s Raumplan can be investigated as one in which the interior is a space of persuasion and orchestrated seduction: “The very notion of shifting floor levels finds some Viennese precedent in theatrical scenography, of the nineteenth century but also the twentieth.” Joseph Masheck, Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 142. Indeed, Frederick Kiesler’s Raumbuhne, or “spatial stage,” was contemporaneous with Loos’s Rufer House and has connections to Arnold Schoenberg’s investigation of spatial music.
  3. Alejandro Cesarco, quoted in announcement for exhibition at Artpace San Antonio, 2010.
  4. Nina Beier, in “Nina Beier, Cash for Gold, at Kunstverein Hamburg, July 11, 2015” (interview with Chris Fitzpatrick conducted on June 1–2, 2005), Mousse.
  5. Nick Mauss, “Quivers in Time and Place,” in Florine Stettheimer, ed. Matthias Mühling, Karin Althaus, and Susanne Böller (Munich: Lenbachhaus and Hirmer, 2014).

Time’s Beat Is Relentless: Brent Burket on Chris Larson: Land Speed Record

In advance of the January 8, 2017 closing of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record, we invited Brooklyn-based culture writer Brent Burket to share his reflection on the exhibition. Central to the multimedia installation is a video Larson created, accompanied by newly recorded audio of the drum track from Hüsker Dü’s 1981 album Land Speed Record, that slowly […]

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Chris Larson, still from Land Speed Record, 2016

In advance of the January 8, 2017 closing of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record, we invited Brooklyn-based culture writer Brent Burket to share his reflection on the exhibition. Central to the multimedia installation is a video Larson created, accompanied by newly recorded audio of the drum track from Hüsker Dü’s 1981 album Land Speed Record, that slowly pans over objects retrieved from a fire at the home of Grant Hart, the band’s drummer. Here, Burket focuses on one detail from the video: a section of Hart’s belongings that includes a crumpled American flag, boxes of master tapes, and a copy of the show’s titular album.

“It’s heartbreaking, the things we forget.”  —Jonathan Carroll

I wasn’t there in the beginning. I won’t be there in the end.

I started with Hüsker Dü’s fourth album, Flip Your Wig, and rode the wave forward. Yeah, I reached back occasionally, raiding friends’ record collections. But I never owned anything before Flip Your Wig, and until recently I had never made it all the way back to their first LP, Land Speed Record.

That’s OK, though. It hadn’t moved; it was waiting for me. Somebody had bought it awhile ago, probably a second or third pressing. Then, maybe they finally traded it in at a used record store after not having played it for a few years. Maybe they were low on cash and really wanted that new laser-etched Jack White 7″ that was only available on Record Store Day. Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is it’s here with me now, pummeling the inside of my skull like an unforgiving massage, somehow comforting me during these strange and strangely familiar times. It wouldn’t be the first time the band had done that.

89cf00c39a8f716b6572d4970ce31eb5The word “mesmeric” often comes up when people discuss Hüsker Dü, and they would get no disagreement from me. But with the later material—the work I knew best—that mesmeric quality came about through the overwhelming sum of the band’s parts (the playing, the composition, the melodies) rather than the more traditional path of repetition and rhythm. I quite happily was not ready for the nearly hardcore onslaught that is Land Speed Record. But you know what Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead said: “A flute will get you there, but a drum will get you there faster.” Land Speed Record spins rhythmically, madly from start to finish. It’s like a prayer wheel, but one that’s being hurled at your head. You either duck or you catch it and let its velocity carry you forward. If I had heard Land Speed Record in 1982 when it came out, I imagine I’d be whizzing by myself right now into the future, still hanging on for dear life. How Grant Hart, planted firmly and wildly in the middle of that velocity, pulled off his parts is a mystery and a miracle.  

“So, we want to say that we welcome you and we also welcome your grief and your anger. We don’t want only your cheerful part or your nice part. Behind grief and anger, inside grief and anger there are many marvelous golden eggs.”  —Robert Bly

Remember the story about the poor sod who takes up employment with the devil to tend to the cauldrons of the underworld for a year with the promise of a grand payoff at the end? When his time is up, the devil pays him with a sack of straw. Straw! WTF, Beelzebub? Dismayed—but without much bargaining power—the worker ascends back up to terra firma. Fuming and tired by the time he reaches the surface, he looks for a spot to rest for the night. As he’s setting up camp he realizes that at least he has that straw for starting a nice fire. When he puts his hands in the bag to pull out the straw he realizes there’s been a change. The straw has turned into gold.

I think of Hüsker Dü in 1981, keeping those fires burning for Old Scratch on the scorched earth tour they dubbed The Children’s Crusade just before returning to Minneapolis to record the Land Speed Record LP for 300 bucks at the 7th Street Entry. All that energy accumulated and slammed its way to the surface that night, all the while squeezing its way onto four tracks of tape. This is how nuclear power works, but without the half-life problem. Trust me. I’m listening to a bootleg from The Children’s Crusade tour as I write this, and the table has been shaking since I pressed play. No half-life. The music from this period blows up on demand. Capturing the energy at the Entry was capturing the moment when our booted-by-Belial cauldron tender realized that his old master had kept his word. Here was the gold.

So, what happens when the objects responsible for such velocity, so many feelings, so much racket, sit still for a long time? What happens when the house they’re in burns down? What happens when they get moved to a friendly artist’s studio, smelling of smoke and history? What happens to them is us. Well, first it was artist Chris Larson who had the good sense to listen to their history, to follow their seemingly dormant velocity. “Seemingly” being the key word there. It’s like the straw in our fairy tale. It’s just straw until it’s given some new air to breathe, that new air being the artist’s attention, and now ours.

Hüsker Dü was different. They were a cathartic listen like no other. Although they weren’t the most overtly political band, there was an anger that filled the grooves of their records. It helped, in the time of Death Star Ronald Reagan, to know that somebody out there was feeling something, anything. But it was more than just the anger embedded in their music. It was the grief. It bled out of their lives and into the music whether they meant it to or not.

America is bad at grief. As a country, we never grieved the Vietnam War. Bad things happen when you don’t go through grief, when you try to go around it or outrun it. I saw Robert Bly speak not long after the Gulf War started and he mentioned that the government had already made the decision to keep images of the coffins returning from Iraq from being seen by the public. They were denying a nation it’s grief. I was thinking about this when I started to listen to Land Speed Record. And then I looked at the album’s front cover. Most of its real estate is taken up by an image of the coffins coming home from the Vietnam War. When Grant Hart designed that cover, he was paying attention to where we were in 1982 and where we were going.

Hate Beast drumer Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü's debut album in the galleries of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record.

Hate Beast drumer Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü’s debut album in the galleries of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record.

And now we’re here, focused on these objects and images from the past, replete with everything from nostalgia to the constant threat of their ability to wreak more havoc. Are the lessons they might bear the same as before or have they shifted with the time between their last moment of usefulness and now? It’s probably less didactic than that. As the camera pans slowly across the floor of the artist’s studio, people are going to pick up what falls to them. Is it that cover of Sweet Potato with William S. Burroughs? Is it the broken promise of the auto parts? Is it the instruments? The tools? The Buzzcocks video? Everything is a doorway now.

The doorknob I keep turning opens to the section with the crumpled and filthy American flag sitting atop an overturned couch. Next to that I see the Land Speed Record cover sitting beside piles and boxes of unleashed BASF master tapes. I see in this little corner all the lessons we never seem to learn and the grief we keep sending out to the shed. But I also see the work that was done in difficult times, the work that always needs to be done, the work we need to do right now. A fist, it does form.

Chris Larson put death metal drummer Yousif Del Valle behind a kit to recreate, record, and re-exorcise the rhythm devils of Land Speed Record, beat-for-beat. Death metal is notoriously demanding to play, the drummer’s stool is a hazardous work site all to itself, but the 26 minutes and 36 seconds of Land Speed Record stretched Del Valle’s abilities to the max. During the exhibition’s opening-day talkDel Valle said that “learning it was a little painful for me.” Hart asked him, “Physically?” One beat, and then sounding as if he was reliving the exhaustion the young drummer replied, “Yeah.”

Time, man. Its beat is relentless. Doesn’t matter if it’s D-beat or blast beat; time won’t let up and it’ll hold you close. And it always takes you back into the pit. Time is punk as fuck.

Universes Collide: Frank Big Bear on The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10

In Frank Big Bear’s newest collage—on view now in the Walker’s new Target Project Space—universes are created and collided. Sourced from magazines and books and referencing topics from space and time to history, art, science, and people, hundreds of images are juxtaposed and superimposed. Photos of the Vietnam War mix with pictures of Patti Smith, hairless cats, and Chicago’s “bean” sculpture. […]

va2016art_BigBear_Install Visual Arts; Artist. Installation of the Walker-commissioned work by Minnesota-based artist Frank Big Bear. The artist’s large-scale piece—The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10 (2016)—is the first artwork to be installed in the new Target Project Space. Siri Engberg, Olga Viso, Muffy MacMillan, WAC Staff Scott Lewis, November 10, 2016.

Frank Big Bear with The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10 (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman

In Frank Big Bear’s newest collage—on view now in the Walker’s new Target Project Space—universes are created and collided. Sourced from magazines and books and referencing topics from space and time to history, art, science, and people, hundreds of images are juxtaposed and superimposed. Photos of the Vietnam War mix with pictures of Patti Smith, hairless cats, and Chicago’s “bean” sculpture. Figureheads of the American Indian Movement share space with fashion nudes, famous artworks, and Minnesota landmarks. Dubbed Walker Collage, Multiverse #10, the work—the artist’s largest to date—consists of 432 panels, each composed on an invitation card for an exhibition by his son, Star Wallowing Bull. It is at once a microcosmic view of life on Earth and a personal endeavor—throughout the piece, the artist interspersed family photos and plastic photo corners, which might evoke a family album. The work is also dedicated to the artist’s late brother, the poet Joseph E. Big Bear.

The work occupies a prominent location, spanning the entire wall of the Walker’s new restaurant, Esker Grove, and is visible from Vineland Place. Created especially for this space, The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10 will be on view for a full year—and, given its depth and rich details, it invites multiple and extended visits.

Based in Minnesota, Big Bear is known for his elaborately detailed drawings, paintings, and collages that portray a world overflowing with vitality, activity, people, and creatures, like this 1989–1990 drawing in the Walker’s permanent collection. Big Bear’s drawings mesh and meld imagery in a frenetic assemblage manner, which perhaps enabled him to easily transition into collage making—a recent shift for the artist.

Fitting with the collage’s focus on intersecting worlds, the artist has agreed to share with us his Facebook updates, posted throughout the development of Multiverse #10. Collectively, they unearth some of the personal, cultural, and artistic influences behind the work while sharing aspects of his life and artistic process, from his time driving taxi to his love for Spoonbridge and Cherry to his endless appetite for reading. Here we are given a rare glimpse into the parallel existence of Big Bear and his collage.

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bg2016tps1115 Building & Grounds, interiors, Target Project Space, November 15, 2016. Frank Big Bear installation featured.

Visitors with Frank Big Bear’s The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10 (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman

Game On: Ericka Beckman’s You The Better

Since the mid-1970s, Ericka Beckman has experimented with film as a medium for expanding the possibilities of performance, often creating set pieces and rule-based actions specifically for the camera. Presenting the original film in conjunction with animated props, the installation You The Better (1983/2015) implicates the viewer as an active participant in the game. You The Better […]

ex2016lto_exh Visual Arts, Exhibitions. Less Than One April 7 - December 31, 2016 Galleries 1, 2, 3, and Perlman. Less Than One is an international, multigenerational group show offering in-depth presentations of work from the 1960s to the present by 16 artists central to the Walker’s collection. The exhibition surveys a range of approaches—from painting and sculpture to drawing, installation, moving image, performance, and photography—sequencing compelling groupings of works by each artist that underscore the often provocative, historically charged, and risk-taking nature of the Walker’s multidisciplinary holdings. Less Than One includes pieces by Lutz Bacher, Ericka Beckman, Trisha Brown, Paul Chan, Trisha Donnelly, Renée Green, Charline von Heyl, Jasper Johns, Joan Jonas, Meredith Monk, Adrian Piper, Sigmar Polke, Pope.L, James Richards, Dieter Roth, and Kara Walker. Curator: Fionn Meade with Victoria Sung

Installation view of Ericka Beckman’s You The Better (1983/2015) in Less Than One at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Since the mid-1970s, Ericka Beckman has experimented with film as a medium for expanding the possibilities of performance, often creating set pieces and rule-based actions specifically for the camera. Presenting the original film in conjunction with animated props, the installation You The Better (1983/2015) implicates the viewer as an active participant in the game. You The Better is on view through December 31 in the Walker group exhibition Less Than One. Here, we talk about the spirit of easy collaboration in New York of the 1970s and 80s, how the original film resonates with today’s plugged-in audiences, and the analogy between games of chance and life.

Victoria Sung: There seems to have been a real spirit of collaboration—especially in the fields of experimental dance, film, and theater—in downtown New York during the late 1970s and ’80s. We can see this in your films, where Ashley Bickerton, Mike Kelley, and other artist-friends take part. How did you get started in film, and how did this collaborative spirit inform your work?

Ericka Beckman: I loved film because it recorded performance, and I used film as a very plastic element—much like a moving canvas—for performance work. I started first by using myself, and then I began to engage my friends, who all loved to perform. At the particular time this film was made, conditions in the economy and in the art world allowed for a lot of experimentation because there wasn’t a real active gallery scene until 1980/1981. Artists worked with what they could, and a lot of what they could work with was the city itself and themselves. Because everyone was doing performance work, or somehow engaged in it, it was very easy to collaborate and do workshop collaborations (i.e. not necessarily make work that’s finished or ready for an audience, but really just develop ideas).


Many artist-friends—like Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, and David Salle—based their early work in performance before shifting to object-making. And whether or not they were performers in their own works, they engaged pretty easily in the work that I was doing because we were all concerned with the available media at the time, especially the media that we grew up on—records, television shows, and commercials. We tossed around a lot of ideas, mixed what we saw on television with what music we were hearing, what we were reading, what we were watching in theaters. The period was really marked by a fluency among all of these mediums.

Sung: In 1983, when You The Better premiered at the New York Film Festival as a 16 mm film, it wasn’t picked up readily by the “art world.”

Beckman: You The Better was my first 16 mm film. I was trying at this time to build a larger audience for my work than just the few venues that were in downtown New York for screening, so I moved to 16 mm hoping that I would be able to engage a larger distribution structure.

This particular film was created after a long, introverted period in my life when I was beginning to investigate what is behind performance. What is the language of action? How do we learn as children to do things? How is our identity formed through action? I wanted to make something work without using narration or dialogue, and because I was using this theatrical, industrial medium of 16 mm film, I knew that I had to have some kind of hook. When I was making the Super-8 Trilogy that was based on Piaget’s work (my sort of incubation period), I made a film that involved Mike Kelley doing a series of team sports outdoors.[1] I said, “This is it: gaming structure is going to replace narrative for me.”

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Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 1. Courtesy the artist

When the film came out it was so off the path of what you expect to see in a theatrical film because of its non-narrative gaming structure. Though it circulated quite a bit, I wasn’t able to show it the way I wanted to show it; I showed it on screens in museums in conjunction with a lot of art shows, but there was a really strong divide—a barrier in fact—between film and visual art in the late ’80s.

Sung: It’s interesting to hear about this deep divide between the moving image and visual arts worlds, especially when thinking about the popular reception the so-called Pictures Generation was getting at the time. Though perhaps it’s not as straightforward as this, the language of appropriation, the pre-digital, the photographic also figures in your work. Given this context, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the somewhat delayed reception for You The Better and what it means to see the work being revisited with renewed energy over these last few years.

Beckman: That’s a good question. In the ’90s, when media switched over from analog to digital there was a change, a big sea change, and there were more and more things coming into the gallery that were time-based. I was pretty aware of it, but I wasn’t really thinking about my work re-entering the art world; I was off doing other films at that time. And then, around 2011, some curators came to my studio and sort of opened up a box of my work. It was pretty amazing that there was a younger audience that could totally engage with it. And I find it really rewarding because the conversations that I’ve had with young curators have been the kind of dialogue that I’ve been missing and wanting for so many years.

Sung: We can see today that you were ahead of the curve in terms of engaging such concepts as digital avatars, virtual reality, cybernetics, video gaming—all of which has become so prevalent in today’s networked society. As you’ve hinted above, this may be a reason why audiences are so much more able and ready to engage with this type of work now.

Beckman: Right. When I made this film it was a faux-interactive game, and the idea of interactivity was sort of coming into being, but there wasn’t really anything out there except for arcade games, which I studied a lot, and casinos. You The Better was going to set up what maybe an interactive computer game or an interactive betting game could be. I started with these very simple games of chance. What is chance? Why are there so many games that are fascinated with chance? And it soon became clear to me that the gambling aspect was the fundamental structure for the uber game I was constructing, because I could use the audience as the bettor here. The audience is able to think about why the bets are being laid down, and to engage with what the players are doing. These ideas are cultural: with all of the activity going on today in terms of digital gaming, and the fact that kids now grow up learning the behaviors of other people by playing games, we understand these kinds of games even though many of us don’t go out and gamble.

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Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 2. Courtesy the artist

While I was doing research for the film, I went to a live casino in the desert in southern California, and inside was a jai-alai game being played by Mexicans and bet on by predominantly white men. There was a big distance between the betting area and the playing area. The betting area was high, like in a mezzanine, and then the pit was the game play. The game play was very rough, and there was a net protecting the bettors from the players. I kept thinking about that kind of use of human value. That informed this idea of the big separation between the off-camera bettor (the audience) and the players; as a result, the audience is not fully able to empathize with the players and the players are arguing with the audience, but they don’t know that it’s not the audience, it’s really the house that they’re fighting against.

Sung: In thinking about the game as structuring device, and the various game piece-like motifs and “blue-collar” uniforms adapted for the film, I’m wondering if you can speak to the larger, social implications of You The Better.

Beckman: Most of the players are boys or young men. That was a conscious decision: much of my work from this particular period created a cast of characters that you saw more and more of in culture, such as the highly active and productive achiever. Again, it’s 1983. I wanted to get at the underbelly of the myths that were out there to promote capitalism. And I found that the casino is a perfect example of it, because you have people going in with this false hope that they can win at something that is either purely chance or rigged. So this optimism for economic gain was a myth that I really wanted to debunk. But I didn’t want to go at it didactically and do something really direct with it; I wanted to create a kind of situation where you could experience what the players are going through.

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Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 3. Courtesy the artist

Sung: The Walker’s presentation of You The Better shows the film as part of a larger installation with props based on those from the original film. It’d be interesting to hear you talk about the different modes of presentation—16 mm film versus installation—and if and how this changes the work today.

Beckman: Most of the work was shot in a black studio—it was produced in my studio in New York City, a basketball court of P.S. 1, and a swimming pool at Media Study/Buffalo. What that allowed me to do was to have a field that’s off screen that can merge with what’s on screen. I wasn’t thinking about film as cuts, but as a framing device in a larger context, in a larger space. Something is captured here, but there’s all this other stuff going on around it. And I conceived of the world that way—this big game world. So when it came time to do this particular installation, I flipped through all of my drawings from the time to figure out what game boards I wanted to use, what kind of structures I wanted to put in the room with the film. The house shape is the predominant motif, and it keeps on changing from being a target to a scoreboard to representing an actual house. It also brings in the Monopoly element—that we’re occupying some structure here that is motivated by capitalism.

ex2016lto_exh Visual Arts, Exhibitions. Less Than One April 7 - December 31, 2016 Galleries 1, 2, 3, and Perlman. Less Than One is an international, multigenerational group show offering in-depth presentations of work from the 1960s to the present by 16 artists central to the Walker’s collection. The exhibition surveys a range of approaches—from painting and sculpture to drawing, installation, moving image, performance, and photography—sequencing compelling groupings of works by each artist that underscore the often provocative, historically charged, and risk-taking nature of the Walker’s multidisciplinary holdings. Less Than One includes pieces by Lutz Bacher, Ericka Beckman, Trisha Brown, Paul Chan, Trisha Donnelly, Renée Green, Charline von Heyl, Jasper Johns, Joan Jonas, Meredith Monk, Adrian Piper, Sigmar Polke, Pope.L, James Richards, Dieter Roth, and Kara Walker. Curator: Fionn Meade with Victoria Sung

Installation view of You the Better in Less Than One at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

I’ve been revisiting a number of my films because the work was always conceived that way; I kept a lot of my props in storage because I wanted at some point to do an install with the film. It’s not until now with digital projection, where you can synchronize lighting and other cues to the film itself, that it’s possible to do this kind of work. It’s definitely shaping my ideas for future work. I’m becoming less and less interested in working on a screen per se, like one screen, but instead am looking to work with multiple screens and multiple objects and lighting cues.

Below, a selection of Beckman’s drawings for You The Better :

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Ericka Beckman, Playing Field and Spin, Study No. 1. All drawings courtesy the artist

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Ericka Beckman, Playing Field and Spin, Study No. 2

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Ericka Beckman, Study for Power of the Spin

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Ericka Beckman, Study for Center of the Spin

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Ericka Beckman, Study for You The Better, Slateman

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Ericka Beckman, Study for You The Better, Wheels and Gold

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Ericka Beckman, Gameplay, Study No. 2

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Ericka Beckman, Gameplay, Study No. 3

Footnote

[1] Beckman’s Piaget trilogy—We Imitate; We Break Up (1978), The Broken Rule (1979), and Out of Hand (1980)—applies Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s developmental theories of learning to game playing, exploring such ideas as how team sports use movement rather than language as a means of communication.

Jimmie Durham: Sound Work

In advance of Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World (June 22–October 8, 2017) coordinating curator Vincenzo de Bellis looks at a work from the Walker collection that’ll play a central role in the exhibition, the artist’s first US retrospective.  Jimmie Durham‘s approach to art is marked by a depth of concept and a practice that takes […]

Jimmie Durham, Sound Work, 2011. Collection Walker Art Center

In advance of Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World (June 22–October 8, 2017) coordinating curator Vincenzo de Bellis looks at a work from the Walker collection that’ll play a central role in the exhibition, the artist’s first US retrospective. 

Jimmie Durham‘s approach to art is marked by a depth of concept and a practice that takes many different forms, all of which revolve around demolishing our shared imaginary and building an alternative standard of the “normal.” The American artist has become known for disorienting operations that prompt viewers to rethink their possible frameworks of interpretation. The open-ended, shifting language he presents seems to suggest that the structure and order of the world, as we are accustomed to seeing it, may not be definitive. His work highlights art’s potential of making us look at the world from different angles, tearing down the barriers between nature and culture, between visual and scientific thinking. This sets in motion a process whereby a constantly evolving personal syntax is used to build an oeuvre with media that range from drawing, to architectural models, to readymades, to video, to sound installations. Let us stop to consider sound.

Jimmie Durham, Stones Rejected by the Builder (2004), Fondazione Ratti, Como, Italy

Jimmie Durham, Stones Rejected by the Builder (2004), Fondazione Ratti, Como, Italy

When I first met Jimmie Durham more than 10 years ago, it was a striking, unnerving, and almost disturbing experience. A long-haired and stern-looking man (he only seemed stern, which I would find out much later), Durham was supposed to deliver a lecture to a class of artists, participating in an intensive summer school course. Before saying anything, Durham placed a rock on the table and then played a video of himself stoning—literally throwing stones at—a refrigerator. In Durham’s hands, the simple violent act of throwing a stone became a conceptual gesture. When the video was over Durham began to speak, with one of his phrases making a deep impression on me: “Listen, always listen; don’t talk, but listen.” Durham has repeatedly returned to this exact advice—offered to his students in 2005, in response to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s questions at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and again most recently as part of a conference coinciding with Jimmie Durham: Sound and Silliness, his exhibition at MAXXI in Rome.

 Installation view of Jimmie Durham’s  A Proposal for a New International Genuflexion in Promotion of World Peace (2007), MAXXI Museum, Rome, Italy  


Installation view of Jimmie Durham’s A Proposal for a New International Genuflexion in Promotion of World Peace (2007), MAXXI Museum, Rome, Italy

“Listen, always listen; don’t talk, but listen.” It sums up much of Durham’s practice and much of what an artwork means to him: something to be seen, of course, because sculpture and form are still central aspects of his practice, but also something to be heard. Listened to, if possible, without talking over. The importance of sound in Durham’s artistic practice is apparent in many of his works, but can also be seen from the recurrent references to sound or songs in his titles.

His 2012 retrospective at M KHA in Antwerp was titled A Matter of Life and Death and Singing, and that same exhibition included his Sound Work (2011), held in the Walker Art Center permanent collection. A grouping of eight sculptural elements, each juxtaposes materials, such as clothing, plastic tubes, and wood, to a generally anthropomorphic effect. Each form retains independent status, even though each was conceived in relation to another, to form a single work. All of the eight elements produce a different sound, ranging from white noise and ambient sounds captured by the artist to the voice of Durham himself talking, singing, swearing and shouting: “All the sculptures have sounds made by me: singing, screaming ‘fuck you,’ saying ‘get away from here,’ and so on. The Russian Army greatcoat that has one arm up has the sound of static; slightly menacing, cosmic. Sometimes the sound is mechanical, like things rattling in a box.”

Sound Work was first shown in 2007 (although it didn’t receive its current title until 2011), as part of Durham’s solo show Metaphase und Metathesis at St. Elisabeth-Kirche in Berlin. On this occasion, Durham brought together more than eight components that were placed at some distance from each other, emphasizing the individual value of each element. Later, as is often the case in Durham’s practice, the parts were repeated in different contexts like a constant mise-en-abyme, adapting to the specifics of each place. At M KHA, Sound Work was condensed, and its eight sculptural components, without following any rigid formal or compositional framework, came together as a single whole, like a group of strange friends chatting with each other, or a band playing music.

Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori, as seen in Milan some time between 1913 and 1914

Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori, as seen in Milan some time between 1913 and 1914

Sound is in fact made of noises, as set forward by the great Futurist artist Luigi Russolo (1885–1947), likely the first contemporary theorist of sound as a form of visual art. In relation to his Intonarumori of 1913, a group of experimental musical instruments, Russolo said that as a whole, noises—he spoke of roars, thunderings, blasts, and noises obtained by pounding on different kinds of metal, wood, hide, stone, pottery, etc.—would produce harmony and sound. Like Russolo’s, Jimmie Durham’s noises are ordinary and “silly,” without any specific apparent meaning. Yet, Durham harnesses silliness in the service of addressing the serious, as a means to inspire a light-hearted courage that helps us confront the big issues of life. It is a sort of invitation to not take ourselves too seriously, even while turning a keen eye on the human condition.

To Poke, to Prod, to Flip, to Fold: Unpacking the Box

Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space. Let’s start by unpacking what we […]

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung
Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman

Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space.

Let’s start by unpacking what we mean by the title Unpacking the Box. We are referring to, of course, the literal box (you’ll see that all of the objects on view take the form of a box or box-like container, whether that be a suitcase, a cabinet, or a backpack) but also the metaphorical box, meaning the museum as white cube or box. These objects throw into question the distinction between an artwork and its immediate frame, or container, and by extension, between the art object and the museum that houses it. The container is complicit, even critical to our understanding of the artwork; in fact, it is the artwork.

This type of so-called “institutional critique” has a relatively long history within the history of art. Perhaps the best place to begin would be Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise), the first edition of which was created between 1935 and 1941. A suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks (rendered at precisely 33 percent of their original size), the Boîte questioned the status of the unique work of art. What did it mean for an artist to reproduce at miniature scale objects from his own oeuvre? Are these “multiples” diminished as works of art? In reproducing and disseminating his artworks, Duchamp challenged not only the unique work of art but also the authority of the institutions that displayed them. Here, one could have a portable exhibition of one’s own outside of the museum apparatus.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

The Boîte en valise has been reproduced several times, thus embodying the spirit of the facsimile. The Walker’s red Boîte is from Series F, produced in Paris in 1966 in an edition of 75. It includes several intentional changes from the first production, including 12 additional reproductions. Most recently, the publisher Walther König produced a new, posthumous facsimile, edited by Mathieu Mercier under the supervision of Association Marcel Duchamp. It uses contemporary digital printing and production technologies to allow for a larger edition at a modest price. This new edition, released in 2015, makes it possible for the Boîte to be viewed, reimagined, and even purchased outside of the museum and gallery system, honoring Duchamp’s original democratic desire.

The intentional variations between the two Boîtes is one that we tried to highlight by placing them side by side. In addition to the obvious differences in color, material, and scale, there are more subtle changes that speak to Duchamp’s playful and irreverent sense of humor. If you look at the backsides of two of the elements on view, for example, you’ll see that the 2015 Boîte presents a two-dimensional trompe-l’oeil approximation of the three-dimensional wooden armature of the earlier Boîte. In other words, the structural function of this detail has been rendered purely decorative. Moreover, the proximity between the two editions and their linear sequencing mimics an assembly line of sorts, perhaps intimating the seriality of their production.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

Across the hall from the vitrine hosting the two Boîtes is a selection of Fluxus multiples that took their inspiration, in part, from Duchamp’s transgressive gesture of shrinking his life’s work into a portable container. On display are a number of Fluxus editions that take the form of a box, suitcase, or so-called “Fluxkits.” Fluxus was a movement of international artists active in the 1960s and 1970s founded by George Maciunas. In 1964, he established ©Fluxus Editions—a collection of affordable publications and multiples. ©Fluxus Editions allowed Maciunas to bring together concepts by a network of artists around the world, facilitating an ethos of collaboration through joint publication.

Many of the objects on view were acquired by the Walker in 1989, establishing one of the most comprehensive Fluxus collections in the United States, and were subsequently displayed in the Walker’s 1993 exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss. Although similar in packaging, each multiple is distinctive in terms of idea, the items they contain, and how artists intended audience interaction. These editions were performative, acting as “scores” or instructions, for exercises of the body and mind.

ex-bba2016ub Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Best Buy Aperture installation. Unpacking the Box August 30, 2016–February 19, 2017 Best Buy Aperture Walker Art Center Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Changing displays in the Best Buy Aperture highlight materials from the Walker collections and Archives & Library. Drawing on ephemera, books, press materials, photographic documentation, and other rarely seen materials, these installations foreground the Walker’s exhibition history and thematic strands in the collections. Integrating archival materials with moving image technology, the Best Buy Aperture encourages a media rich and innovative approach toward archival displays. The inaugural Best Buy Aperture display Unpacking the Box presents artist’s multiples—three-dimensional works produced in more than one copy—that take the form of a box. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a Valise), a suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks, this presentation ranges from experimental and playful objects of the 1960s Fluxus movement to more contemporary productions, which in their multiplicity question the notion of the unique work of art. These containers act as single-artist portfolios or combine the works of several artists, functioning as “portable exhibitions” to be unpacked, ordered, and reordered by the viewer-turned-participant. Once folded, flipped, poked, prodded, or shuffled, the contents are no longer suited for physical manipulation as they have become fragile over time. Unpacking the Box embraces this emerging tension between implied interactivity and the often-cited “do not touch” policy at museums. How do we “unpack” the box we cannot touch? In lieu of engaging our tactile sense, the objects on view prompt us to imagine new modes of participation. Curators: Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung

Installation view of Unpacking the Box

While many of these Fluxus multiples were meant to be physically unpacked, poked, prodded, flipped, and folded, they—like Duchamp’s Boîte—have become fragile over time. Fluxus multiples posited play as practice and audience participation as fundamental to the full realization of the work, but these boxes now exist behind glass in a state of suspended animation. Unpacking the Box attempts to activate these works by prompting passersby to imagine new modes of interaction. Boxes and kits are propped open, the door to a cabinet is left slightly ajar, contents spill out of a backpack in a manner of what might be called orderly chaos. We’ve started the process of unpacking and leave it to you to use your imagination to unpack, arrange, and rearrange the objects on view.

Unpacking the Box is on view until February 19, 2017.

Like Bringing a Surgeon to a Knife Fight: A Metal Drummer Learns Hüsker Dü

“Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it,” writes Jeff Severns Guntzel of the challenge Yousif Del Valle faced in learning the entirety of Grant Hart’s drum track for Hüsker Dü’s debut 1981 album. “Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.” In anticipation of […]

At an April 14, 2016 recording session at the 7th Street Entry, Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü's Land Speed Record. Photo: Gene Pittman

At an April 14, 2016 recording session at the 7th Street Entry, Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record. Photo: Gene Pittman

“Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it,” writes Jeff Severns Guntzel of the challenge Yousif Del Valle faced in learning the entirety of Grant Hart’s drum track for Hüsker Dü’s debut 1981 album. “Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.” In anticipation of Del Valle’s September 29 in-gallery performance and the release of the limited-edition Chris Larson: Land Speed Record LP that features his drumming, Severns Guntzel looked at the Hate Beast drummer’s process—from computer-visualized sound waves to practice, practice, practice. 

Sometimes an artist is as much a subcontractor as anything else—when the work requires some other person to do a thing. That thing might be a part of the art that nobody sees, or it might be the art itself.

For sculpture and video artist Chris Larson, that person-to-do-a-thing is occasionally Yousif Del Valle, a former grad student of his at the University of Minnesota.

Mostly, Del Valle has been called on for his welding skills—infrastructure work for an artist who creates pieces that fill large spaces; sedan-sized, even house-sized creations.

Chris Larson: Land Speed Record, the artist’s latest video installation, is something altogether different—and he called on Del Valle for a far more specialized skill set. He needed him to play drums. Very fast drums.

Specifically, he needed Del Valle to learn an album: the 26 minutes and 36 seconds—he had to play it precisely to time—of the first album by Twin Cities punk rock trio Hüsker Dü. That album, from which Larson’s project takes its name, is the recording of a 1981 live show at Minneapolis’ 7th Street Entry (a dungeon of a room barnacled on to the better known, and better ventilated First Avenue).

After learning the part, Larson needed Del Valle to perform it on stage at the 7th Street Entry, where he would be alone in the room except for a recording engineer, Larson himself, a few Walker staff, and Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart.

The recording, now complete and just released on clear vinyl along with the exhibition catalogue, is the gallery soundtrack for Larson’s video piece: a slow pan over and around an assemblage of Hart’s belongings salvaged from a house fire.

Hart is one of those early punk rock characters chased by words like “legend” and “pioneer.” Hüsker Dü is one of America’s punk rock pantheon bands. In the Twin Cities and beyond, there are disciples of this man and that band.

Yousif Del Valle, 30-years-old and reared on heavy metal, is not one of them. And that’s what makes this subsucontractor story so enchanting.

ex2016cl_7thStreetEntry Visula Arts, Exhibitions, Performing Arts. Recording session at 7th Street Entry—with Chris Larson, Grant Hart, and drums played by Yousef Davilia. April 14, 2016. Part of the exhibition, Chris Larson - Land Speed Record, June 9, 2016 - January 8, 2017, Medtronic Gallery. Curated by Siri Engberg and Doug Benidt. http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2016/chris-larson-land-speed-record

Del Valle with Chris Larson, his former art professor, at the 7th Street Entry. Photo: Gene Pittman

The El Paso–born sculpture artist was not even El Paso–born when Land Speed Record was recorded. In his entire life as a music fanatic, he has never voluntarily listened to a punk rock album. In a nearly two-hour interview at the practice space of his heavy metal band, Hate Beast, there was no reference to punk rock beyond Hüsker Dü (unless you count the band down the hall rehearsing a cover of Bad Brains’ “Re-Ignition”).

I am going to speak to you now as a retired heavy metal-turned-punk rock drummer—as somebody who has worshiped in both warring temples: You have to understand that asking a heavy metal drummer to learn Land Speed Record is musician comedy. Del Valle is the kind of metal drummer who can tell you how fast he can play his two bass drums (“My max is 280 beats per minute, and that’s maybe for 15 seconds.”). With songs as raw and chaotic as Hüsker Dü’s, it’s like bringing a surgeon to a knife fight.

At least it would be comedy, except that Larson conceived of and managed the project with a reverence that soaks every part of the project, and Del Valle took to the challenge earnestly and with military-like discipline. The end result is not funny at all, it’s perfection.

Playing the punk

Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it. Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.

The laws of physics, at least the ones that apply to punk rock, should have rendered Del Valle inert in the face of the Land Speed Record challenge.

Instead, he learned every smack and thwack of that record—close-listening and playing it through hundreds of times. And in his performance of the piece he managed to telegraph the angst and abandon of the original—and precisely to time.

One of the wonders of art is how it can make rigorous processes invisible. Del Valle has done that here. And oh, the rigor.

It started slow, and probably with furrowed brow. In fact, the first step was just hearing the drums. Land Speed Record is less a collection of songs than it is a soundscape. That’s the word Hart himself used in an interview with the Walker. “The individual songs and the individual rhythms,” he said, “are just simply that, just different ripples from a different wind.”

In practical terms, that means that sometimes you can’t really hear the snare drum. Other times, you can’t really hear the bass drum. At all times, there is a wash of cymbals, as if Hart had subcontractors of his own with sticks constantly striking the cymbals creating a sort of wave that carries and simultaneously washes over everything else, from the first note to the last.

Image courtesy teh artist

The audio file of Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record. Image courtesy Yousif Del Valle

“Like my first contract kill”

So how do you teach yourself a soundscape?

First, you come to terms with it.

“It’s a really abrasive record. It’s like angry, aggressive kids. It’s not something that you want to listen to constantly,” Del Valle said. “Listening really became a discipline. I’m getting in my car, and I have to listen to this. I want to listen to something else. I want to listen to the news; I want to listen to anything else but this. But I have to listen to this. I’m going to the grocery store, I’m going to listen to this. I’m going to work, I’m going to listen to this. It just didn’t emotionally capture me. It was sort of like my first contract kill or something. I agreed to this project willingly, but it was hard because I didn’t have that emotional connection, whereas now I do—I absolutely do.”

The next step for learning an “angry, aggressive” soundscape? Computers.

Del Valle opened the album in audio editing software on his computer. That allowed him to see the sound. He’d get cues from the rise and fall of the sound waves now visualized before him, and he’d annotate the waves. “I had written notes on the peaks of the waves,” he explained. “So I had sort of a cheat sheet for spots I was having trouble with.”

Having grasped the contours of the piece, he had to get the details. That meant deciphering the drum fills—rather, it meant excavating the drum fills from wall of sound. “It was trying to listen through that noise. That’s what became exhausting.”

In at least one case, listening wasn’t enough.

“There’s a particular spot,” Del Valle explained. “Grant starts doing this one-two-three-four with his bass drum, and then you just hear a couple of tom hits, then a roll, and then the song starts again. In my head, I was like, ‘He dropped one of his sticks,’ because that’s a really weird fill to do.” Ultimately it was a YouTube clip of Husker Du in 1981 that cleared it up: it was a fill, not a flub.

Chris Larson, still from Land Speed Record, 2016. Installation with color digital video, black-and-white Super 16mm film (each 26:35), sound, and sculpture. Photo courtesy the artist.

A multimedia installation, the video at the center of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record (2016) slowly pans over Grant Hart’s possessions retrieved from a house fire, set to a soundtrack of Del Valle’s drumming. Photo courtesy the artist

Hubris, shattered

Del Valle’s affect is kind and earnest, but he admits that he signed on for this project with a bit of hubris. There may be punk rock drummers who would balk at keeping up with Hart’s velocity, but velocity was a non-issue for Del Valle. And, in theory at least, the length of the piece he had to memorize was a non-issue, too.

“I’ve learned 40-minute death metal epic songs that I love,” Del Valle said, “and I know them. It doesn’t take me that long.”

But this was different. “It took me longer to learn this, just because there’s so much information crammed into those 26-and-a-half minutes. I came into it arrogantly, not because I think I’m great, but because it’s punk. I was just like, ‘There’s nothing challenging about punk. It’s just like, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2.’ But there are not a lot of repeating patterns, and that’s what makes it hard. You get into a groove and you’re like, ‘Okay, I get the pattern that he’s doing,’ and the song’s over. A minute-and-a-half. Next song. And now it’s a whole new pattern. I started really appreciating that Grant had something unique, even that young. So yeah, it certainly shut me up.”

The thing that gets lost in all this technical stuff is the same thing that has this project walking a line between tribute and trifle: The music Hüsker Dü was making in 1981 was not meant to be picked apart like this. It certainly wasn’t meant for the kind of close-listening Del Valle had to do. Land Speed Record is pure life force, performed by kids whose mindset, as Hart described it, was that “the outcome of the rest of our life is dependent upon this set that we’re going to play now.”

That mindset was not immediately obvious to Del Valle, but through this work of intensive audio exegesis, it eventually came through. “To kids back then, I can’t imagine what that must have sounded like. It’s just them going for it. They don’t give a shit about anything. They’re just there to do their thing, and I really respect that.”


Yousif Del Valle performs the Land Speed Record soundtrack at 7 pm on Thursday, September 29, 2016. A set by his thrash metal band Hate Beast follows.

Unsuturing the Self: On Less Than One

The 16 artists in Less Than One each enact a self that functions as a dynamic ecosystem rather than a unitary form. While it has become almost common contemporary practice to disavow artistic selfhood, often this is enacted either at the level of the individual artwork or through the exhibition. Contemporary art is full of […]

Installation view Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center.

The 16 artists in Less Than One each enact a self that functions as a dynamic ecosystem rather than a unitary form. While it has become almost common contemporary practice to disavow artistic selfhood, often this is enacted either at the level of the individual artwork or through the exhibition. Contemporary art is full of forms of disruption against the suturing gesture of the solo exhibition or its related practice of the retrospective. While many of the artists in the exhibition disrupt these historic forms, they also frequently investigate the wider set of practices that serve to buttress the sense of a whole, complete artistic self. These sets of related, often interpretive practices include—to name a few—artist talks, interviews, and artist writings. They are often seen as peripheral to an artist’s practice, but are fundamental to understanding several of the artists in Less Than One. For the artists in the exhibition, it is frequently through this set of interpretive practices, more particularly this hermeneutics of the self[1], which is fundamentally called into question. At issue is the artists’ responses when they are asked to perform a self[2]—that is, how they relate to those terms of engagement—and how openly they risk the possibility of being incomprehensible in that engagement.[3] (more…)

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