Blogs Untitled (Blog) Interviews

Brian J. Evans on Performing Costume Made of Nothing

Costume Made of Nothing is a performance created by the artist Pope.L and is featured in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. It debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in 2012 and its most recent iteration at the Walker Art Center involved a weight-bearing structure and new movements. The performance takes […]


Opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

Costume Made of Nothing is a performance created by the artist Pope.L and is featured in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. It debuted at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) in 2012 and its most recent iteration at the Walker Art Center involved a weight-bearing structure and new movements. The performance takes place in the galleries, thirteen times over the course of the exhibition’s five-month run.

Prior to the final performance of Costume Made of Nothing, I sat down with the performer, Brian J. Evans, who worked with Pope.L to develop this new piece. Join us on January 4, 2015, at 2 pm for Evans’s final performance, which coincides with the closing of Radical Presence.

Tell me about your background and training.

I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, but I moved to Gaylord, Minnesota when I was seven. I went to Gustavus Adolphus College for liberal arts and left with a dance major. I didn’t find dance until I was a sophomore and studied abroad as a junior, so I only had three semesters and two classes of dance training before I got into the field. I had always done performance and I got super lucky when one of my professors, who was in Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, set me up with an audition. At the end of two rehearsals they asked me to come dance as an apprentice, and eight years later I’m a professional performer and teaching artist.

How did you find out about the opportunity to perform in Pope.L’s piece and what was your audition like?

I found out about the audition from a friend of a friend, and when opportunities like that come up, I take them. So I looked at the video of the performance at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and my first inclination was that I didn’t want to do it. In this iteration the performer just stood there and put his arm into a hole in the wall, so I wasn’t so sure about it. But I did a little research on Pope.L and was impressed by what I found on Google. So I auditioned and went through the poses, and what then really peaked my interest was having a Skype conversation with Pope.L directly afterward. I remember he gave me directions to try out different movements, and he told me to go away and come back after thinking about it, but I decided to try to incorporate those instructions right then, on the spot. That’s when the collaboration started. I thought, ‘Good, let me try to do something that would inevitably start us on a process of collaboration.’


Pope.L at the opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

What was it like to work with Pope.L for that brief time that he was here in July? What was the working process?

There were three rehearsals, two to three hours each. In the first one, he said right up front that he’s not a choreographer and he’s not going to try to choreograph anything. He said that he would need me to collaborate with him to figure out the movements. He didn’t want to do what he did the other two times. The structure at the Walker is three times as big and is weight bearing. Right away we talked about his influences: Bauhaus and the German stylistic movements. We talked about character, and I thought to myself, ‘why the structure, why the costume?’

In the second rehearsal we got into it and he had this image of me hanging from the pipe. How to I get up there? Do I jump or crawl? So I improvised and crawled up and he said, “Yes, keep that.” We decided that I would say “Well” three times at different pitches and volumes. There are headphones attached to the piece, so what am I listening to? There were terms like ‘step and fetch it,’ ‘the funky chicken,’ and butoh—that’s where the walk came from. He would then send me away with different assignments like, how does this character walk, how does this thing look, how does he interact, why is he traveling, what does he do every day, and why does he continue to go to this structure? In the third rehearsal we had a set of instructions and a character sketch, and for opening night that’s what I had to work with. Since then, the character has evolved into a more multi-dimensional entity.

How has the audience reacted to this piece?

Pope.L and I talked about how it’s unimportant that there’s an audience. The character will do the performance regardless of an audience. There have been a lot of people that want to imitate me or block me when I’m moving through the space. I remember on opening night after it was done, Pope.L told me that this character doesn’t want to be touched, doesn’t want to be messed with, isn’t really inviting. I have to fight the temptation of allowing people to influence me. I don’t think this character is human so I don’t feel like I’m being mean to anybody, but I do find myself thinking, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t come close to me. I don’t know how I would react if you did.’

So it’s been interesting how people interact with me, whether they move or not. Older people tend to have a slightly more reserved reaction. I know I’ve startled people. Teenagers are always running away, but kids are fascinated. It’s performance art in a gallery, which is very different from performance on a stage. As a performer you’re trained to think that if people leave early you’re not doing your job correctly, but because this is not that, it’s been fine that some people stay for five minutes. It’s a different way of thinking about performance art.

Tell me how the performance has changed over time.

From the first time to today’s, and this was the twelfth time, it’s gone from more of a hollow character sketch of making sure I did all of the instructions right, to allowing myself to let the character interpret those instructions. That usually always changes because I, myself, as Brian, come to it differently everyday, because something’s happened or I’m thinking about something, or I’m totally focused, or I’m trying to reach a goal.

There were some performances where no one moved except for leaving and coming, and there were others where the audience would surround me and circle the structure. It’s different every time. When nobody is here I’m usually hoping that I don’t perform too quickly because there’s no one to feed off of. This was new today: when I was approaching the exhibition, I felt totally alone, so I thought, ‘I’m going to do my solo and no one’s going to see it and that’s fine.’ So that was a different mindset. I recognized people were watching me after a while, but my way into it was a solitary one.


Opening day performance of Costume Made of Nothing at the Walker Art Center, July 24, 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

The structure is like a prop or a second performer. How does its presence affect your performance?

I haven’t yet (maybe it will happen in the thirteenth performance) attached an identity to the structure. I will say that the structure does feel different. And that’s partly because of my physical stamina and how I’m able to approach it. The structure is the thing that keeps me grounded in what I’m doing. I always go back to it and everything is about that interaction, so I don’t ever really feel like I’m alone. Then it doesn’t really matter if anyone is watching, because this structure is consistent, unlike most things in my life [laughs]. Once we bolstered the structure, the thing became unbreakable. It’s always going to be there to support me.

Have you done any other performances that are like this—in the contemporary art realm, as opposed to performing arts, on a stage with a seated audience?

No, I’ve never performed when it’s called contemporary visual art. I’ve done things that are more along the lines of visual architecture or improvisations that had minimalistic movement parameters. This is something more in-depth. This performance has been different in that it’s just me and that structure. Every time I’ve done it, it’s gotten a bit more involved. Most of the time you don’t get to dive into a piece, you just have your weekend of performances.

Have you ever had to do something multiple times over the course of many months?

I’m part of a dance company, Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, so we do a lot of touring. There are three or four full-length works that I’ve done anywhere from 30 to 50 times over the span of five months on tour. Costume Made of Nothing is different because it’s the same space, the same apparatus, the same lighting, the same area, and we’re shooting for the same duration. In the work I do with Stuart Pimsler we really want to know what the audience is thinking and feeling, and in this piece, I feel very autonomous. I wonder how many people saw me perform and what they felt and thought—and I’ll never know.

Pope.L asked me to record one of your recent performances with the idea that he would send you feedback and ask you to change aspects of the piece. I wonder how Pope.L envisions the final performance.

The little I interacted with him, I got the impression that he was very respectful of my process. The last thing he said to me, which has really influenced me, was that he was going to come by at some point. In the back of my mind I didn’t think he was actually going to, but because he said that, I always perform it like maybe he will that time. I think it was part of his plan.



Brian J Evans - Head Shot

Brian J. Evans of Gaylord, MN is currently in his seventh season with Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater. In addition to performing, he serves as the company’s Musical Director. He is a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, where he earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in dance. In 2009, he was recognized by the Star Tribune and the following year received a SAGE Award for Outstanding Performer. He also teaches at the Saint Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts and Young Dance, and served as Dance Program Administrator for SPDT at FAIR School Downtown. Evans has also worked with numerous directors and choreographers on productions throughout the Midwest and performed as a singer/dancer at Valley Fair, as well as appearing in a feature film.

2013: The Year According to Matt Connors

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from multimedia artist Ralph Lemon and photographer JoAnn Verburg to designer Martine Syms and musician Greg Tate — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to       […]

UnknownTo commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from multimedia artist Ralph Lemon and photographer JoAnn Verburg to designer Martine Syms and musician Greg Tate — to share their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 .

The last day of 2012 was also the last day of Matt Connors’ first solo museum exhibition, Impressionism at MoMA PS1. This momentum combined with his award-winning artist book A Bell is a Cup propelled him into 2013, a year when he participated in two important contemporary painting shows, Painter Painter at the Walker and Painting: A Love Story at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The focus on painting in both show titles might obscure the rich influences that go into Connors’ work, as assistant curator Eric Crosby noted in his introduction of Connors at a recent Walker talk: “He freely borrows structures and ideas from design, poetry, writing, music, and the history of painting; but his marks aren’t derivative in any way. They’re removed, distilled, and recontextualized so that a poetic sense of things borrowed or overheard pervades the work.”

Reflecting on 2013, Connors shares some of these ideas in a top-10 list focused almost exclusively on musicians, from King Krule to Richard Youngs, and exhibitions, from Michel Auder to Ettore Sottsass. The only exception is a bookstore — where he gets his ephemera.


Marlow Moss


Discovering the previously unknown to me work of  Marlow Moss (1889–1958) at the group exhibition last summer at Tate St. Ives. A queer/transgendered constructivist/neo plasticist Mondrian protégé? YES.


Ettore Sottsass: Important Works from a Private Collection | Christie’s Private Sales

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I stumbled upon this micro show because I found someone selling the catalog for it on eBay as I was conducting my daily Sottsass eBay search. I showed up on the opening day and received a private tour from the curator, who led me through an immaculate collection of ceramics, furniture, and printed ephemera from the collection of Sottsass’ wife. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Franz Erhard Walther’s Die Modellierung des Innenraums Werkzeichnungen 1963–1974

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 10.30.12 AMGigantic cluster of these strange and compelling ideagrammatic drawings that I stumbled upon after seeing a small flyer advertising it on a tram in Basel. This exhibition in a bank lobby (ah, Europe!) was maybe better than anything I saw at the entire Art Basel.


Mykki Blanco’s Instagram Feed


Essentially, GOOD VIBES.


Richard Youngs and Luke Fowler

Richard Youngs and Luke FowlerRichard Youngs and Luke Fowler at Cafe Oto in London. I could just as well add Cafe Oto to the list, as their schedule will inevitably induce glee if I happen to be in London or anguish if I’m not. But the rare synchronicity that occurred in order to allow me to be in London when one one of my heroes, Richard Youngs, was playing could not be beat.


Mast Books

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As I go through my receipts at tax time I inevitably come face to face with how important MAST BOOKS has become to me. Somehow or other my daily dog walks always end up bringing me here. Part of a larger, exciting trend that heralds the return of the independent book and record store (fingers crossed).


The Emergence of King Krule

King Krule: His unannounced secret appearance at Mercury Lounge to an audience of 40 or so, his super great takeover of RINSEFM, as we well as his album released this year, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. Chops and swagger!


Arp’s More

arp more

More an album that I find to be really undeniable, that felt like an instant classic on first listen — and “Golden Teacher” both burned serious holes in my brain this year.


Michel Auder at Kunsthalle Basel

Michel Auder

I was already very familiar with Auder’s work as he was a teacher and became a friend, but knowing his work also means knowing that it is essentially inexhaustible, and this beautifully installed show felt like a succession of wormholes into the many different layers of this traveler’s past and future. I was obsessed with the exhibition design that finished in a dead-end, forcing visitors to reencounter, in reverse order, these multifaceted, durational pieces. Beautiful, gross, scary, embarrassing, sexy, stupid, fun, sad, joyous.


Trisha Donnelly at Eva Presenhuber


There was a video projected high up on the wall that consistently tricked my mind into thinking that it was actually a window, projecting daylight back into the space, and that somehow people were walking by outside despite the fact that we were on something like the fifth floor. Somehow I could not un-see it this way — even after finding the projector (I also continued to see this “image” in my head long after leaving the show). This belief inducing reversal seems to me somehow key in Trisha’s work and maybe in most artwork I respond to these days. Her reconstituting of the holdings of MOMA this same year will most likely end up on a lifetime top-ten list, but the experience of looking at it, and then afterwords, looking at the world through its/her lens, was an important event for me this year.

2013: The Year According to JoAnn Verburg

JoAnn Verburg. Photo: Jim Moore To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and writer Greg Allen — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the […]


JoAnn Verburg. Photo: Jim Moore

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and writer Greg Allen — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 .

While the challenges of life can be difficult, JoAnn Verburg said on Twin Cities Public Television’s MN Original last May, we’re not alone: “Yet, at the same time, you’re the only one that looks at things the way you do. I think everything I’m doing comes out of that: the fact that we’re alone and we’re not alone.” As a photographer, Verburg has used her lens to examine this seeming paradox — of intimate connection and individual experience. As MoMA curator Susan Kismaric put it when Verburg’s MoMA-organized survey Present Tense came to the Walker in 2008, Verburg’s photos are “grounded in an attention to human interaction — between the people in her pictures, and between her work and its audience — which keeps both artist and viewers perpetually approaching a threshold between searching and finding.”

Verburg took time from her schedule — which includes preparing for a show this fall at Pace/MacGill Gallery of new work shot at Italy’s Fonti del Clitunno (see below) — to share some of her “searching and finding” from the past year in a best-of-2013 list. Many of her picks show an exploration of what connects us across geography, race, religion, and time — from the pages of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son to a predawn listening session overlooking Moroccan rooftops, an artistic mashup about loving kindness at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts  to a posthumous exhibition of works by Mike Kelley, her friend and studio neighbor when she first arrived in Minneapolis in 1981.


Best rehearsals and performances


Robert Wilson, The Old Woman, 2013

One of my favorite moments of the year was experiencing Robert Wilson’s The Old Woman in a 17th-century theater in Spoleto, Italy (traveling to BAM this summer). When I see direction (“notes”) being given to an actor or the crew, it feels like an X-ray into the mind of the director. Of course, in theater, it is never as simple as one person — Bob Wilson, in this case.  Articulation is the word that comes to mind to describe how Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov — dressed alike, in matching white face paint, campy clothes, and plastic windblown wigs — used their bodies. Brilliantly. For us, the lucky audience. The story isn’t much more than a device that allows Wilson, via Dafoe and Baryshnikov, to stimulate and hold our attention with nonstop stunning visuals and weird sounds. By the way, why is Defoe’s tongue that color? From far up above the stage, on the ceiling of the theater, a super precisely focused red spotlight is shining on it.


Most surprising sound


Rooftops in Fez

In Fez, Morocco, not really knowing why, I was obsessed with the idea of making sound and video recordings of the call to prayer. So one night, before the sun rose, I climbed up to a rooftop terrace above the city with my equipment. I can’t describe how beautiful it looked. I waited and recorded for about an hour, and finally I had to leave when my fingers were too cold to work. Here’s what I heard: I must have had the time wrong for the call to prayer, but as black night turned to the dark grays and browns of predawn, a lone rooster called out, sounding both ecstatic about life and and disappointed at not to be able to explain it. After many cock-a-doodle-dos, a second rooster cried out, then another, and another, etc., until countless invisible sound-points defined, almost visibly, the broad bowl shape of the ancient city below.


Best architecture/installation combo

Inside the Institut du Monde Arabe

Next time you’re in Paris, head for the Institut du Monde Arabe, the sister-building of the Guthrie Theater, by architect Jean Nouvel. The exterior entrance wall sets the tone. It’s a grid of intricately patterned circles, apertures lauded for their photosensitive responsiveness, opening and closing with the sun. Inside, the installation of the exhibition is astonishing, especially the entry hall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors alternating with floor-to-ceiling video projections of daily life in various neighborhoods in the Arab world. Someone is buying spices in Cairo as you see yourself walking. It pulls you in confusingly, beautifully and instantly.


Best sacred space


JoAnn Verburg, untitled proof (Ping at The Fonti) © JoAnn Verburg 2013

In July, I went back again to make pictures at the Fonti del Clitunno, sacred headwaters of the Clitunno, where it is said that Jove mated with a mermaid. I’ve been using the idea of the park as a point of departure for an installation of photos, sound, and videos. Parks and exhibitions are both places where strangers come, walk around, look at the sights, maybe feel inspired, maybe have a conversation, and leave. I wasn’t sure what direction to go next with my shooting, but Ping Chong was teaching nearby at La Mama, Umbria, and was willing to model. I guess I don’t have language for what happened next, but the connection between stories of past visitors and our present-tense hot summer day, and also the layered feeling of earth, blue sky, cold water, human nature, conversation, ducks quacking, swans floating, trees, and so on did feel magical, if not part of something sacred. There was something about the moment his toe touched the water, sending out ripples…


Best classic novel

200px-NativeSonRichard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was on the required reading list for one of my sociology classes in college, but I didn’t read it until 2013. It is a tragic and too too relevant story about America.


Best movie Q&A

McQueenSteve McQueen at the Walker. I’d been intrigued by comments made by the actors in 12 Years a Slave. For example, given how unmitigatingly horrific most of the film is, that McQueen says that for him, it is a film about love. Love? Love. Yes, and that the actors felt trust and support and safety, and thus, were able to go deeply — even into their darkest selves — to perform their roles. Seeing McQueen in person at the Walker was a glimpse into the mind — the man — who needed to create extreme and obsessive hate, desire, and shame in 12 Years a Slave (and his movie Shame) and who, as a visual artist, had developed the discipline and skill to do it. Thank you to the Walker and other Minnesota institutions for bringing our artists into town: our artists dealing with our ugly problems and the exquisite beauties, too, of this moment.


Best explanation

more Xmas tree

Christmas present

In Destiny Disrupted, Muslim author Tamim Ansary walks his readers through the origins of two different world views: Western and Islamic. To oversimplify his simplification, what we Westerners think of as “world history” has remained remarkably distinct from Islamic versions of what’s been happening within the same boundaries during the same 1,500 or so years. While our seafaring, sea-trading ancestors were developing and spreading our religions and ideas from port to port, a second set of religions and attitudes was simultaneously developing along overland trade routes. Certainly, there were points of overlap, but the mountains and other geographical barriers to travel and trade were overwhelming enough that surprisingly distinct cultures have survived. When many of us woke up on 9/11 with the questions “Is this really happening?” and “Why?” it was without much understanding of Islam, Islamic governments, or Islamic attitudes about science, individualism, human rights, and so on. For a long time — for other reasons — I’ve wanted to travel to Turkey, and this book pushed me over the edge. Jim and I just got back from two trips to Istanbul and Morocco.


Best auditing


American and Moroccan students presenting their report on Sidi Moumen at CCCL (مركز تواصل الثقافات or Center for Cross Cultural Learning)

Mary Stucky’s journalism class in Rabat, Morocco. Fifteen American journalism students partnered with as many English speaking Moroccan journalism students. After weeks of immersion and training, each pair ferreted out a story idea and interviewed Moroccans ranging from a 21-year-old man with AIDS to a sub-Saharan woman trying to escape the sexual slave trade, not to mention the only woman competing as a break dancer in a hajib (scarf). It’s thrilling to see hopeful brave optimistic American kids open themselves up to the big world, bonding with their new Moroccan partners, stumbling through language barriers, absolutely game. And lucky me, I got to listen.


Best saddest exhibition


JoAnn Verburg, With Michael and John in Minnesota, 1983. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

Mike Kelley’s retrospective at PS1. Mike and I both moved to Minnesota in 1981 for one-year positions as visiting artists at MCAD, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. For that year, we had side-by-side classroom/studios and spent a lot of time looking at each other’s work, photo-ing (me), creating performances (him), going to see visiting filmmakers at Film in the Cities, and taking day trips to funny Minnesota places in my car. Mike’s performances were unique and ugly and powerful. In 2013, I kind of had to drag myself to Queens to see his post-suicide retrospective. It is worse than painful that Mike got himself into a corner he couldn’t gracefully exit, and it was impossible for me to see his exhibition without that filter. The drawings and videos from our shared year in Minnesota held such promise. He established his voice and his career. He was so dear and funny and ironic and pissed and sad, and I’m glad all those qualities live on in the work, but what a waste. Oh, and we had done a collaboration, a triptych of him as the Banana Man, but I’d never seen the finished video, which for about an hour, wonderfully brought him back to me.


Best re-mix


Jan Estep, Are You There, Guanyin? 2013, as installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a beautiful large wood sculpture of a bodhisattva is the only visible artwork (although it wasn’t originally made as art) in a darkened room. There are benches, so it is possible to sit and contemplate this beautiful transporting figure. And there’s more. Local artist Jan Estep has created an audio piece of voices reciting the loving kindness meditation. It’s an extraordinarily effective example of putting two artworks together in such harmony that neither one detracts or distracts from the experience of the other. In fact, for me, the sculpture focuses my seeing, and the rhythmic sound keeps my mind from wandering. I can’t wait to go back.

For more on the artist, read the September 2012 interview “JoAnn Verburg on Newspapers as Portals to the Political.”

2013: The Year According to Greg Allen

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from conceptual painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and photographer JoAnn Verburg — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year […]

Greg Allen. Photo:

Greg Allen. Photo:

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from conceptual painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and photographer JoAnn Verburg — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 .

Artworld polymath Greg Allen is best known to many of us as the man behind the blog the making of, published since 2001. But the Washington-based writer wears many other hats: filmmaker, author (he’s been published in Cabinet, the New York Times and WALKER magazine, for which he profiled Minneapolis-based furniture making, blogging, and landscape design team ROLU), and exhibiting artist (last year he showed at apexarts and 601Artspace). And he’s also found himself serving the role as experimental publisher.

In 2011, after blogging regularly about the Prince v. Cariou copyright infringement case, he realized that Richard Prince’s seven-hour grilling on the stand — under oath — was probably the longest interview the artist’s ever done — and that many people were interested in reading it. He compiled and printed a volume filled with transcripts, affidavits, artwork, and related images, and made it available for sale. It’s since been expanded in a new, 375-page version. Its full title: Canal Zone Richard Prince YES RASTA: Selected Court Documents from Cariou v. Prince et al, including the Videotaped Deposition of Richard Prince, the Affidavit of Richard Prince, Competing Memoranda of Law in Support of Summary Judgment, Exhibits Pertaining to Paintings and Collages of Richard Prince and the Use of Reproductions of Patrick Cariou’s YES RASTA Photographs Therein, and the Summary Ass-Whooping Prince Received at the Hand of The Hon. Judge Deborah A. Batts, as compiled and revised by Greg Allen for the making of in April 2011. In 2013, he published a book of documents related to the case’s appeal, as well as the Standard Operating Procedure, which includes the force-feeding protocols used by military doctors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Here’s the ideas, moments, and events that most stood out for him in 2013.


The Embroidery Trouble Shooting Guide

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Screen grab from

At the Sewing & Embroidery Warehouse, an error in the web page’s HTML code, invisible to Microsoft users, causes the text to grow so big the letters become illegible abstractions.


America Over There

call me maybe marinesEven without getting on its gender rollercoaster, US military contractors in Afghanistan making a shot-for-shot remake of the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders’ cover version of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me, Maybe” reminds me those forward operating bases are America, too.


Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market eBay Shop

panda glassI have no idea if including an autographed photo [“Perfect for framing.”] of each item transforms the junk Rob Pruitt’s selling into art. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the panda tchotchkes — which look most like his trademark paintings — consistently go for ten times more than anything else.


The stuff Jayson Musson sold online

instagram_sculpture_henrock_3Musson’s stuff, meanwhile, wasn’t even his. He threw himself on the capitalist mercies of his social media followers last spring by creating found-object sculptures on the streets of New York City, photographing them, and putting them up for sale on Instagram. Then he was stuck waiting until someone showed up to close the deal. [DISCLOSURE: I bought the first one after six hours, for $20.]


Picasso, Baby

picasso-babyWhen it was unfolding in real time on Twitter as a piece of durational performance art, Jay Z’s “Picasso, Baby” gallery stunt sounded like the shallowest, most obvious celebrity-worshipping trap imaginable. It turned out to be a music video, and a depressing percentage of the New York art world walked right into it.


Forged Masterworks


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From the documents produced in the growing flurry of lawsuits from disgruntled buyers, it appears that the last decade of its 165-year existence, the primary source of profits for New York’s Knoedler Gallery was derived from the sale of forged Abstract Expressionist masterpieces. As prosecutors unwind the case, I now find myself looking at every Pollock, Kline, and Motherwell with a bit of suspicion.


Salvaging Costa Concordia

Costa Concordia salvage operation in progress. Photo: Wikipedia

Costa Concordia salvage operation in progress. Photo: Wikipedia

On September 16, Titan Salvage uprighted the scuttled cruise ship Costa Concordia in the largest parbuckling effort in history. Reuters livestreamed the entire 19+ hour process, and it was incredible. GiglioNews, a local Italian media outlet, has preserved the feed in four-hour chunks on YouTube.


Double Disaster

Andy Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1962, as presented for sale by Sotheby's

Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1962, as presented for sale by Sotheby’s

I get chills every single time I hear former Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s 24-second rumination on Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which he would soon sell for $105 million.


Turnkey Tyranny

Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, 2010, via Guernica Magazine

Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, 2010, via Guernica

Trevor Paglen has an uncanny ability to understand and present the invisible. Which is why his essay on the NSA and “Turnkey Tyranny” felt so urgent and outraging.


Courtroom Sketches

Molly Crabapple's courtroom sketch from PFC Manning's trial

Molly Crabapple’s courtroom sketch from PFC Manning’s trial

Cameras and other recording devices were banned from the military courtroom for PFC Bradley/Chelsea Manning’s trial, which makes Molly Crabapple’s eyewitness sketch reportage for The Paris Review all the more important. She also drew her report on the inmate hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay.

2013: The Year According to Chris Larson

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and musician Greg Tate — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According […]

Chris Larson. Photo courtesy the artist

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and musician Greg Tate — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 . 

To many, Chris Larson’s best known for torching a modernist home last summer. In Celebration/Love/Loss (2013), a sculpture and performance work created for the all-night Northern Spark festival, Larson built and then burned to the ground a full-scale replica of a Marcel Breuer–designed house built on a St. Paul bluff in 1962. But before that high-profile project, Larson was well known in the Twin Cities for a range of art projects — many equally large in scale and vision. Part of the Walker’s 1998 exhibition Sculpture on Site, the St. Paul–based artist and musician created a wooden, fort-like structure in the Walker’s Cargill Lounge for a 2011 show, and a pair of mini-golf holes he made with students in his University of Minnesota class were part of last year’s Artist-Designed Mini Golf course. His works of Insecure Architecture were featured in the 2012/2013 McKnight Visual Arts Fellowship Exhibition at MCAD, and his video work, Heavy Rotation, will be included in 2014 Whitney Biennial.

As part of our series reflection on the year 2013, Larson offers this list of “ten top things that kept me. In order of appearance.”


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Cyclone Haruna

Tropical Cyclone Haruna. Image: NASA

In my continued interest in rotating, spinning and revolving, images of Cyclone Haruna in February of 2013 held my attention for some time. This cyclone produced widespread flooding, which produced perfect conditions for a catastrophic locust infestation in Madagascar. Tragic.



The sinkhole in Assumption Parish, via

As above, so below. In 2013, an extraordinary video of a sinkhole was caught in action by a park emergency official in Assumption Parish Louisiana.
(Images of the 2010 sinkhole in Guatemala continue to hold my attention and still tops my personal top-10 list for 2011.)




2013, the first year no one asked for a friend request.


Cooking with acorns


Free, easy to gather and a great source of protein. Acorns are bitter; make sure to bake and boil out the tannins before eating. Check for worm holes: avoid these or black acorns.  White oak is the best source. I eat acorn pancakes with birch syrup: delicious.



Sumac. Photo: Flickr user damozeljane, used under Creative Commons license

This summer at the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, I learned how to make tea and lemonade from sumac. Another free and easy way to eat and drink off the earth. Gather the sumac berries in mid-August, before the heavy rains (rain will wash away the flavor and acid). Berries should be ripe with a sharp lemon flavor and have a deep red color. Harvest the berries, soak them in water for an hour or so, strain the liquid with cheesecloth to get rid of the tiny hair and berries. Serve over ice.


Circle Farming

Circular irrigated agricultural plots near the the Al Jawf oasis in Libya, as seen from Japan's ALOS satellite. Image: European Space Agency

Also known as Heavy Rotation-Center Pivot Irrigation, circle farming is an irrigation process in which a watering systems rotates around the crops. One rotation usually takes three full days. The central pivot farms in Kansas are captured in some incredible images, thanks to map images on the worldwide web. In September 2013, Japan’s ALOS satellite shot some beautiful photos of crop circles in southeastern Libya.


“Art 665b Unraveling”

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Jim Hodges’ 2013 MFA sculpture course at Yale University School of Art. I would go back to school to take this class.


9 Artists

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#OpenCurating: Yasmil Raymond on Curatorial Ambassadorship

Continuing #OpenCurating, its series of interviews and events exploring the ways Web 2.0 and social media technologies are informing new practices in art, the curatorial office Latitudes hosted an event in Barcelona recently with Dia Art Foundation curator (and former Walker curator) Yasmil Raymond. As #OpenCurating’s content partner, the Walker has participated in these conversations, both […]


Yasmil Raymond (left) with Latitudes’ Mariana Cánepa Luna and Max Andrews at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Februrary 19, 2013

Continuing #OpenCurating, its series of interviews and events exploring the ways Web 2.0 and social media technologies are informing new practices in art, the curatorial office Latitudes hosted an event in Barcelona recently with Dia Art Foundation curator (and former Walker curator) Yasmil Raymond. As #OpenCurating’s content partner, the Walker has participated in these conversations, both through an interview with our web team that launched the project in September 2012 and through publishing key pieces from the project on our recently redesigned homepage. Held February 19 at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the event focused on Raymond’s work with Dia, where she’s been employed since 2009, and her current projects, including the forthcoming Gramsci Monument, a project by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn that launches in July. In this excerpt from the full interview, Raymond fields questions on “curation,” including one from former Walker chief curator Philippe Vergne:

Latitudes:Philippe Vergne, the Director of Dia Art Foundation. Philippe’s questions are great but tough: “It seems today that everybody is a curator, that ‘curator’ is the new ‘DJ.’ How do you see the evolution of your own profession? Is there a different way to work with artists? And is Dia a place that has embodied proto-curatorial practices (in the 1970s) and post-curatorial practices (now)?”

Yasmil Raymond:As to how I see the evolution of the profession, I’ve only been in this profession for eight years — one year in dog years! But I do see an evolution in that the curators of the past like Harald Szeemann were so concerned with their authorship. Then we have great curators like Hans-Ulrich Obrist or Hou Hanru, Lynne Cooke or Catherine de Zheger, Ann Goldstein or Elisabeth Sussman, a whole generation of curators who I admire for their boldness and rigour on some levels, their scholarship and playfulness, their poetry. Some of them are phenomenal authors, they curate as if they were writing a book. I’m not interested in authoring in that way. When I write a text I am an author, but when I am working with an artist I’m not. I’m more interested in being a host. I look at it from the point of view of politics. I am the one that has to defend the work, first of all to my colleagues inside the institution, and to convince them that this is an exhibition that we need today, an artist we need to support today. Then we all have to convince the visitor. Winning those battles with enthusiasm and knowledge gives me real satisfaction. I’ve never thought of myself as a DJ, I’m not interested in playing to an audience in order to entertain. I am hostess, I make sure that the experience is unforgettable for the artist.

The artist Alejandro Cesarco recently gave a powerful talk at Dia about On Kawara, and it was like an artwork lecture, a homage to the great work of On Kawara. The next day I called him to thank him and he said to me that the experience of preparing the talk, of going to the archives, meeting the registrar, and so on, had really humanised his experience of the institution. I thought that was great. I’m a humanist and I want to insist on being humane, and for caring for the one-on-one, the face-to-face. So yes, I do think that Dia is gearing towards the post-curatorial in the sense that I don’t think artists need to be curated, I think artists need to be supported, enabled. And Dia means that, the word “dia” in Greek means “through,” and we have always said our mission is to facilitate, to be a conduit. So perhaps I’m not a real curator, I’m something else, an enabler, a vessel, and soon I’ll add ambassador to that list.

Latitudes:Let’s quickly move to the final questions. [Independent critic and curator] Maja Ćirić has asked, “What are the ‘cutting edge’ curatorial practices in United States today (spaces, agents, projects, exhibitions)?” And Agustín Pérez Rubio [Director, MUSAC, León, 2009–2013] asks, “As a curator with a Latin American background, how do you perceive the situation of Latin American art in the US, and more specifically in relation with Dia? Some of the most important Latin American artists lived or live in New York, from Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Luis Camnitzer… what is the relation with them?”

Raymond: “Cutting edge,” what is that? Well, I mentioned before The Artist’s Institute in New York, Anthony [Huberman] is asking very interesting questions about format, methodology and duration through his model of curating exhibitions. To answer Agustín, one of the founders of Dia in 1974, Heiner Friedrich, was a German art dealer who represented many of the artists than ended up entering the collection. There has been a few gifts since the 1970s but it is not like there was ever a plan or a committee deciding what to acquire, and we would need to have enormous resources today to commission or acquire large-scale projects in the same way as he did in the 1970s. So the idea of going back – not just to Latin America, but to any context – and to try to collect in depth a whole room of an artist such as Lygia Clark, it is just not possible. There is simply not enough work available to be able to go and buy a whole room now. Perhaps the situation is different with Felix Gonzalez-Torres. But in terms of this relating to my background, I don’t really work in that way. Perhaps my Latin gene is only active in my personal life. I’m interested in the energy of really extraordinary art, whether than happens to be made by Luis Camnitzer, or Gonzalez-Torres, or whoever, it doesn’t matter. But there is always a question of urgency. Gonzalez-Torres transformed what we understand today as art. But his work has been the subject of really important recent exhibitions and we need to weigh our priorities knowing that Dia cannot do it all. Perhaps one day, but not at the moment, we’ve made commitments to artists for the next four years.

Interview with Robert Bechtle

Robert Bechtle has been painting his surroundings in the San Francisco Bay Area since the 1950s. When I went to interview him the other day, it was a bit like being inside one of his photorealist works. On my way to his place in Potrero Hill I walked up some steep hills flanked by rows […]

Robert Bechtle in his studio.

Robert Bechtle has been painting his surroundings in the San Francisco Bay Area since the 1950s. When I went to interview him the other day, it was a bit like being inside one of his photorealist works. On my way to his place in Potrero Hill I walked up some steep hills flanked by rows of sunlit flat-front houses, under crisscrosses of power lines, and in and out of morning street shadows I recognized from his paintings and drawings. I crossed the streets in 20th and Mississippi Night (2001) and a few blocks over to the east is the corner in Covered Car – Missouri Street (2001)—both charcoal on paper drawings in the Walker’s collection. He would say later, “They’re all things that I’ve noticed just living here. Things that I see on my walk in the morning, or I’m driving by and something jumps out and says, ‘Photograph me.’” He may be the most familiar with San Francisco’s architecture over the past 60 years. Sometimes he’d draw and paint the same scene several times. (more…)

Selections from John Waters’ Library

Filmmaker/author John Waters — who guest curated the Walker’s Absentee Landlord exhibition — was recently invited to San Francisco where he extended his curatorial prowess to a new Reading Shop in the city’s Mission district. The shop is part of Kadist SF (counterpart to Kadist Art Foundation based in Paris, France)—a mixed-use 1,400 square foot nonprofit […]

Filmmaker/author John Waters — who guest curated the Walker’s Absentee Landlord exhibition — was recently invited to San Francisco where he extended his curatorial prowess to a new Reading Shop in the city’s Mission district.

The shop is part of Kadist SF (counterpart to Kadist Art Foundation based in Paris, France)—a mixed-use 1,400 square foot nonprofit art space on the corner of Folsom and 20th. Since last March when Kadist SF opened it quickly became popular in the local art scene for its flexible, laid-back, and definitely riveting program of exhibitions, events, artist/art magazine residencies, and, notably its reading room. The room would open Saturdays 11 am to 5 pm, inviting visitors to come by and check out more than 100 international art magazines not often available elsewhere. The visibility of these imports brought the public nearer to critical dialogues on art happening from Vancouver to Tel Aviv, and for the most part pretty far beyond the main distribution channels of arts discourse.

This month, in response to the Reading Room’s steady increase of visitors, Kadist SF expanded it into the Reading Shop—a reading room/bookshop. It not only stocks art magazines but also highlights independent publishers, and invites notable cultural producers to curate selections from their personal libraries. Waters was the first guest. He was given free hand to compose a list that includes novels such as David Gates’ Jernigan and Patrick White’s Voss, Jean Genet’s biography by Edmund White, and several writings by Waters’ himself (some of which you’ll find in stock at the Walker Art Center shop, too). The books bring new insight into the ways in which fiction has influenced the filmmaker’s work.

I asked curator Devon Bella about the Reading Shop’s culture, content, and the prompt to invite Mr. Waters:

Brooke: What is the story behind the Kadist Shop? Why did it open, what’s stocked, who does it serve?

Devon: The Reading Shop launched on the premise, and expansion of, Kadist’s Reading Room. It is a hybrid of a store and a library. As a program, the Reading Shop loosely addresses the current state of publishing, but in the most expansive and speculative sense — by making available selected art books and international magazines, creating space for public use, and responding to interested readers. It borrows various conditions from bookstores and libraries, and expands on them in order to heighten the culture of art publishing locally.

The Shop comprises a rotating selection of magazines and books – two racks of international art periodicals, one shelf dedicated to publications from an independent art publisher, and a table full of books culled from a personal library. All of the magazines hanging on the racks for the past few weeks are far too many to mention (I only order one copy per magazine), but in collection they represent an expansive view of contemporary practices in art publishing internationally. They include: Pages (Rotterdam and Tehran), It’s Nice That (London), Picnic (Tel Aviv), No Order (Milan), Graphic (Seoul), Fillip (Vancouver). This season we also opened with a survey of J&L Books, a small art press founded in 2000 by artists Jason Fulford and Leanne Shapton, alongside the library of filmmaker and artist John Waters.

In San Francisco, there are very few resources to peruse art publications from other countries, with only a small handful of art distributors circulating magazines for the entire US. Yet during the last decade, English has informally become a trade language of the international art world, so dozens of magazines from Europe and Asia that once printed in their local language were made increasingly legible for US readers. All this to say, the Reading Shop is an endeavor to intensify local art discourse by making known, and disseminating artistic and cultural perspectives from other city centers, from Seoul to Tel Aviv to Rotterdam, because each magazine produces, and is produced within, a context, and the experience of browsing and discovery has so much potential for cross-pollination.

Brooke: Could you talk a bit about the titles? How are they selected?

Devon: For each title, I always like to explore the visual characteristics, the editorial voice, and its seriality. I’m interested in how a publication date is also punctuation of time, and for magazines, in particular, how they evolve, or dissolve, from one issue to the next. Some of my favorite magazines over the last five years are no longer in circulation, and I find this impermanence really thrilling in the case it germinates further titles and new networks of producers, writers, etc.

A couple of my favorite magazines are produced by artists with wildly different editorial approaches:

Toilet Paper (Milan) is a high-production, lo-brow, text-free magazine combining commercial photography with dream-like narratives directed by the artist Maurizio Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari (Le Dictateur). It follows in the wake of Cattelan’s cult publication Permanent Food, with every issue produced under a provocative, hyperrealist theme. What really fascinates me about it though, is the online counterpart, where the absurd scenes one muses on in print are animated, and come alive for the screen. The magazine exists in a state of flux, in new space between print and the internet. Not to mention, even the fine print is curious, where one expects to find the typical names of contributors, editors, etc– TP credits include “stuntman,” “party boy,” and “ice cream whippers” (!!!)

Pages is a bilingual English and Farsi- magazine started in 2004 by artists Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi, both Iranian-born conceptual artists based in the Netherlands. Pages publishes roughly twice-yearly with ruminations on Iranian art, culture, architecture, theater, history, and politics. It functions as a platform for dialogue between artists and writers from Iran and elsewhere, and in the process conveys a complex understanding of the region, a realm that remains primarily uncharted territory for mainstream media outlets.

Brooke: How does Selections from the Library of John Waters jibe with programming currently at Kadist (if it does)?

Devon: The library, as it operates within the context of the Reading Shop, is a lateral, programmatic shoot, with John’s library formalizing his various roles as a writer, filmmaker, artist, collector, and storyteller. Waters is the ultimate bibliophile, and I wanted to show the books he has read over a lifetime; it is an elaborate index of pulp, subversion, and bravura, where the substance of each title and the life of John Waters are intricately woven together, inhabiting a reflective, interior space of John himself. In comparison, I wonder if his exhibition at the Walker now also inhabits this kind of space, as it uses the very same formula.

In a way, yes. In the Walker’s parallel gesture of inviting Waters’ private art collection and his own artistic work to be thoughtfully positioned in public space, there’s this intimate look into the construction of a consciousness (some sliver of it). Inevitably the checklist and layout lends insight to Waters’ influences, affections, politics, and jokes. But while the exhibition may expose, somewhat indexically too, this interior mind space, I think there’s a lot of intrigue in the way curating becomes a provocative art form for Waters.

“Can artwork sexually attract each other?  Does minimalism make pop horny?  Does pornography elevated to high art lose its erotic power?  Does size matter or can a tiny joke compete with a maximalist icon?  Can art ever be “funny” without losing academic enthusiasm?  Would Fischli/Weiss and Roman Signer fight over who’s more droll?  More Swiss? And even more importantly, if all these works had to live together would Carl Andre ever be able to laugh?” – John Waters

The exhibition is imbued with his filmic language and contemporary art world critique. Walking through the galleries, you do find yourself, like Devon said, in this new fantastic context where John Waters the filmmaker, the writer, the artist, the collector, and the storyteller intersect. I’d like to know more of the visitors’ perception of what it was like to come to the Walker and experience this artist/curator sensibility. It’s so important to grant space for artists’ curatorial expressions, especially as the notion of curator is so radically changing, and it’s totally wonderful that Kadist SF is doing that.

En Route to ‘Baby Marx’

Baby Marx began as Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’ idea for a television sitcom in which puppet versions of key figures in the history of economics are brought back to life. Intended as a way to make the lofty and often distorted fundamentals of socialism and capitalism accessible to a broad audience, the piece has undergone […]

Baby Marx film still, 2009. All images courtesy the artist, Detalle Films and Labor Gallery, Mexico City.

Baby Marx began as Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’ idea for a television sitcom in which puppet versions of key figures in the history of economics are brought back to life. Intended as a way to make the lofty and often distorted fundamentals of socialism and capitalism accessible to a broad audience, the piece has undergone several iterations since its inception four years ago. For his upcoming exhibition at the Walker, on view August 11, 2011 – November 27, 2011 Reyes will use Perlman Gallery and the entire Walker campus to begin filming a documentary version of Baby Marx that examines its development to date as well as the complex issues with which it grapples. This past spring Reyes joined curators Bartholomew Ryan and Camille Washington to discuss the project in depth.

Camille: How did Baby Marx begin?

Pedro: I first had the idea for something I was working on in London, but it was too ambitious and was rejected. So, I put it in my drawer of unrealized projects. Then, in the lead up to the 2008 Yokohama Triennial in Japan, I was riding the Tokyo subway with Akiko Miyake, one of the curators of the exhibition, and I told her, “Well, I have this idea for a TV puppet show whose main characters would be Karl Marx and Adam Smith.” I like that there is a saying in Japan that says “A samurai doesn’t know the word impossible.” Miyake-san responded like is a true samurai, she said, “If that’s what you want, we’ll do it.” From there deciding what kind of puppets to use led to a super interesting exploration of the Japanese tradition of puppeteering.

Bartholomew: Why puppets?

Pedro: I think that puppets require a mastery and spontaneity not found in stop motion or animation. Also, puppeteering has been the historical equivalent to political cartoons in the performing arts. It is a form of critique similar to the ventriloquist or the court joker who was the only one who could make jokes in front of the king. The joker also often used some kind of doll or puppet. So, the puppet would spit out truths that would be unbearable from the mouth of a person.

Bartholomew: This was around 2007. Can you remember what it was about Smith and Marx that felt relevant at that moment?

Pedro: They didn’t feel relevant at that moment. This is the time before the credit crisis and the collapse of the markets. It felt like a subject which was precisely not fashionable. People would ask, “Why Marx?”However, there was something I wanted to find out not only about the state of the world, but also I wanted to know where I was standing in the political spectrum.

At a certain point in your life, you have this negotiation of your own ideas. When you first read Marx it makes so much sense, but then if you read Smith it also makes sense.Marx tells you “In order to have some rich people, others need to be poor” and then you read Adam Smith who tells you “Hey, what is all that equality business? You work more; you shouldn’t earn the same as the lazy one, right?” You may just ignore these voices but in my head I continued to hear these two people debating. So, I thought it could be interesting to stage this conflict. Here you have two philosophers who didn’t have the chance to meet in real life talking to each other. But also you have two conflicting sides of human nature. The task at hand was to choose fragments from Marx and Smith (among others) and weave a story, hopefully with the idea that it would become entertaining.

Smart-O-Wave logo

Camille: How does the Smart-O-Wave microwave oven that you used for the initial teaser and pilot of Baby Marx fit into the picture?

Pedro: Actually, the invention of the Smart-O-Wave was a turning point. It became a dimensional door that allowed me to bring any thinker into the story by placing the book they wrote in the oven. So by “defrosting” their thoughts they come back to life. It’s like a flying carpet, it can take you anywhere.

Camille: You speak a lot about mobile seminars and radical pedagogy. Is that something that also really underpinned the project in the early stages as much as entertainment did?

Pedro: Yes, Baby Marx was thought of from the beginning as a primer, or you could say Political Science 101. Sometimes you see the movie before reading the book, and for this subject puppets seemed the perfect treatment. Plus there was no Marx movie, no Adam Smith movie.

Bartholomew: The puppets were designed in collaboration with famous Japanese puppet maker Takumi Ota. I know the process was quite extensive. Can you talk about working together?

Pedro: Takumi Ota was the perfect match for this project, because he is a genius at leaving out everything that is not necessary and using the simplest forms. My obsession was the use of abstract shapes both in fine art and folk craft. In Japan, wood carved toys made in the wheel are very similar to Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus costume designs. So, fascinated by this extreme degree of abstraction, I started to design the characters using only platonic volumes; to cast the personality of a character in the simplest form. In fact the simplest form is a silhouette.

Solids of Rotation, 2009

Bartholomew: This is when you made the Solids of Rotation studies…

Pedro: Exactly. This limitation was very productive. I gave Frederick Taylor a silhouette based in a hyperboloid, like a sand clock, because Taylor was obsessed with time management. With Marx’s it was obvious that I had to use his characteristic hairstyle which is like a trapezoid. Then, when you turn it into a solid of rotation it looks like a bit like samurai helmet. For Friederich Engels I took his long beard and made it into a spiral, like a party-blower; Che Guevarra has his beret and his goatee, so I made the head and the goatee like a top, and with the addition of the beret the solid of rotation looks like a hazelnut.

Camille: Did you work on the initial design alone or in collaboration?

Pedro: Takumi Ota  made three-dimensional versions of drawings that I worked on in discussion with him. In the 1970s he designed characters for a series called Hyokkori Hiotan-jima, which means “the pumpkin island,” because the puppet heads were made with pumpkin seeds. The creative dialogue was great because I was thinking of what Ota San would like, almost trying to please him. It was almost a telepathic thing of trying to speak the same language, seeking the most extreme abstraction possible.

Bartholomew: You both passed these designs back and forth via the internet. He was in Japan and you were in Mexico for the most part.

Pedro: Yes, exactly. Due to the 15 hours difference Akiko and I met with Ota-san at 9pm, which would be his night. After seeing my drawing I would go to sleep and he would go on working all day making a clay model based on our conversations. Then, at 9 am in the morning (his night) we would meet again and review the progress. We went like this it a year and a half.

Camille: So, did you go there and finalize your designs with him or were they finalized by the time you arrived in Yokohama?

Pedro: There were several trips and meetings during that time. One of my favorite parts was the mechanics of how specific puppets operate. For instance, the Milton Friedman eyes turn and blink like dollar signs. Also, one side of his mouth is smiling and the other side is angry. His personality changes depending on which side of the camera it is facing. It is a way to show that two sides of capitalism: one charming and seductive, and other greedy and cruel.

[They laugh.]

Milton Friedman puppet, 2008

Pedro: So, there are some interesting philosophical limits to the characters, but also the way they are built conditions their performativity.

Camille: Before the pilot you made a teaser. In fact, you exhibited the teaser along with the puppets for Yokohama. Was the trailer an exercise in how the puppets ultimately would move and function and be filmed?

Pedro: Yes, in the beginning I met Ryo Ito who is an amazing puppeteer and became the leader of the puppeteers. He could take a shoe and make it perform Hamlet. So the movement design for each character was genius: the arrogant manners of Adam Smith, the tidy and nervous movements of Taylor. Again Frederick Taylor was obsessed with time management, so he would say, “OK, we’re going to make him swing like he’s a metronome for music.” Just perfect.

Camille: How does the type of puppet you use for Baby Marx differ from others?

Pedro: Rod puppets move very differently than glove puppets. Glove puppets like in Sesame Street look at the camera and open their mouths. In Japanese puppeteering the rapport between characters is conveyed more through the eye contact and with almost no mouth movement. Is much more subtle, and the intent is not necessarily to make you laugh. They can also perform on a darker note, which is something difficult with glove puppets. I like this style, which is not necessarily for delivering puns all the time.

Bartholomew:  When you made the trailer, you had these gestures and a very distinct choreography for each of the characters. Camille and I were watching it again, and it’s very funny. It’s very enjoyable how each puppet moves and the ways in which they come into the piece.

Pedro: The election of the characters had to do with its potential for the plot. As much as you have the Marx and Engels duo, you have Adam Smith and Freddy Taylor, who are like the ideologist and the technocrat. The first is a persuasive courtesan and the second is an obsessive-compulsive. The characters fit in with certain roles. You need the archetype of Lenin in the revolutionary section, the Bolshevik giving grand speeches, but that rhetorical power has its counterpart in the pragmatic Che Guevara, who is willing to open (a loving or a fighting) fire. As the story unfolds Che Guevara ends up having a romance with Miss Lena, the librarian.

Bartholomew: There’s that moment at the beginning of the trailer where I think the titles are saying we’re living in a post-ideological age, and then the camera which is looking at this beautiful librarian zooms in and runs its gaze up her leg.

Camille: As she flicks her heel!

[They laugh.]

Pedro: I use the joke as a mechanism. Wittgenstein said that a serious philosophy book could only be written through jokes. The marvelous thing about a joke is when it presents the thesis and the antithesis in such an abrupt way that you synthesize it as laughter, a sort of airbag that cushions the collision of reality with your expectation of reality; the collision of ideology and realpolitik.

Camille: What is the time period for the original Baby Marx pilot?

Pedro: The story takes place in the present time. Crisisville, the city where the library is located, is a way to say that whatever we consider the status quo or “final state” of the world can change sooner than we expect. The last decade has been a good example. From 911 and the stupid wars that followed, the collapse of the economy, and today the revolutions in the Middle East, or the nuclear accidents in Japan. We have seen the map of the world shaken and transformed within a matter of hours…

Camille: I’m sure all this influenced your decision to set the entire Baby Marx narrative within a library as a place of ideas. Can you speak a little bit about the decision to use that setting?

Baby Marx set installed at Labor Gallery, 2009

Pedro: The library is a space which represents, on one hand, the post war idea of humanism. The capitals of the columns are like those in Le Corbusier’s Assembly building in Chandigarh, the tables and chairs are inspired by Jean Prouvé, the handrails are like Niemeyer and the lattice like México’s modernist Mario Pani. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a generic modernism that could belong to any country, like Korea, Brazil, Mexico, the U.S. or southern Europe. The fight to take control of the library also represents the current debate regarding the privatization of public services that used to be associated with the state. In general, it’s a caricature of the political-economic doctrines and models that decisions are based upon today.

Bartholomew: One thing that is really interesting about Baby Marx is that it’s a project that has emerged in stages where you re-imagine the project over time. Now we are coming up on a stage where the question really seems to be, “What are the terms of this piece?” This leads to wider questions about the intersections of ideology, entertainment, distribution, and so on. In terms of this journey was the pilot ever linked explicitly to Japan? Was it something that you imagined could be on Japanese television?

Pedro: Even if some of best talent for making puppets was in Japan it did not mean the best talent for writing was there because the humor in Japan doesn’t translate into the rest of the world. Or it translates but not in this register of political critique that you find in the United States, which has become in recent years one of the more sophisticated globally in terms of political satire. It seemed to be the most interesting challenge to reach or to try to be attractive to an audience in the United States because ideas have greater currency and potential for distribution.

Camille: When we were first talking about showing Baby Marx at the Walker, the project was still a pilot for a U.S. television show. Then a transition happened last year and you decided to make a feature film. Can you talk about that?

Baby Marx pilot in production, 2009

Pedro: TV and Film are two different markets. You cannot launch yourself into making a TV series without having a sale for a whole season. My producer Moises Cosio and I had very good meetings from different people from HBO, Sony, etc. They were interested, but none were ready to commit. I remember one “suit” who explained to us very clearly that “TV series are only a means to sell ads,” so I loved the contradiction of having a capitalist venture with a socialist content. However in TV, you can be on hold for an indefinite amount time. We realized that we didn’t need any approval to go ahead and do a movie on our own.

Camille: How did you go about drafting a script that would satisfy those demands?

Pedro: Well, during the writing process we discovered that the people who are best acquainted with the history of economics and politics are not funny. [Laughter] And the people who are funny as writers are not acquainted with the history of politics.

Bartholomew: That’s quite a predicament.

Pedro: Yes. I didn’t want to do something funny but superfluous, or to have something which is serious but boring. So, I have this rule of life that says “If you have to choose between A and B, do A and B.” Ergo, the decision to have both serious moments and funny moments. This is something you can do more easily in film than in TV. In TV the tyranny of the genre is harsher. If you are making a comedy you have to deliver one joke every 5 seconds.

So, with the film I also want to have pleasurable moments of seriousness because there you can have philosophers and political scientists comment on the subject. In between those moments of cleverness is where the opportunities for comedy arise, sketches, animation etc. That’s the stage we are in now.

Bartholomew: A while back when we were still thinking in terms of television the three of us visited PFFR, the television writing group that did the MTV2 puppet show Wonder Showzen using puppets a la Sesame Street but with outrageous content and approaches. It was super entertaining to listen to them just throw a few ideas around. Their instant suggestion was that Karl Marx and Adam Smith had to make love and have a baby. There was this sense that yes, this could be really funny, this could be really entertaining, this could be ridiculous and absurd but how hermetic it might become, in the sense that the “radical pedagogy idea” or any kind of instructive parallel to the comedy would likely have fallen away. In this sense perhaps moving towards the documentary structure which is, again, more open-ended and less resolved as an operating premise, feels like a natural move for the project.

Pedro: I think that one of the very interesting things about our meeting with PFFR was realizing that a variety show structure (episodic scenes with different approaches which they used in Wonder Showzen for instance) would be an ideal way to proceed. I realized that mixing the universe of real persons with the universe of puppets, and including devices such as animation, interviews, etc., we would make a more agile and diverse piece. The documentary is a little like a variety show in this sense. If you have too tight a structure it becomes harder to tell the jokes, and harder to tell the interesting facts. It’s not that the previous approach was wrong; it’s more than the addition of all the different approaches combined is much more powerful. So I do believe that, for the public, it will be much more interesting to have this embedded quality where you’re moving between universes.

Camille: Right, so the exhibition as Smart-O-Wave.

Pedro: Yes!

Camille: As curators, this development has led us to ask how we would articulate the exhibition to other people. And in asking that we discovered that the real way to talk about it is to be up front about that questioning, to see the Walker as a moment of reflection in the project, one that asks, “What is this thing?” What does it mean to bring together entertainment and ideology in some kind of popular format?

Pedro: One of the privileges of being an artist working with curators is having the room to ask these purely ontological questions. To question form and content entirely.

Camille: Yes.

Pedro: We have asked very important questions. How will be to shift from TV to film? How do we negotiate the exhibition space as a production space? How do we engage the public as participants in the critique of the content and of the medium? What is the design and function of the public events we are planning in relation to this new structure?
Basically, beyond asking what this project is, we are asking what the project is becoming.

Bartholomew: One of the questions that Baby Marx asks implicitly – something that mirrors PFFR’s suggestion that Smith and Marx make a baby together – is what could be a point where Adam Smith and Karl Marx could meet ideologically? Is Baby Marx about marking and pointing out the presence of the ideological inheritances we are all sifting through, or is it more interested in moving towards some kind of future model?

Baby Marx film still, 2009

Pedro: Ideologies indeed intermarry in our minds and then give birth to our own thoughts which, obviously, inherit the beauties and defects of their parents. What interests me is to present these genealogies in progress, not as a final conclusion but as a tool. One such tool is called counterfactual history, which means: What if…? To imagine parallel histories that could have occurred. In this case, interesting arguments between two characters who did not have the opportunity to meet during their lives. An example of this is The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu by Maurice Joly, which exposes the ideas of the state from two different perspectives. These two characters debate their doctrines and analyze human nature. Staging philosophical conflict is the aim of the project. Though, it never reaches a conclusion. It’s more about showing that instead of there being one right answer, there’s a myriad of answers, none of which should be embraced dogmatically. They should be used on a more ad hoc basis, according to the occasion and actuality. When we say, “OK, this is the truth and it should be applied in every case,” that’s when things go wrong.

Bartholomew: For some reason I once read a book on how to write day-time soaps for American network television, and they pointed out that the most durable storyline that can carry an entire run of a show over many years is that of a love divided, that it is the most engaging device and should never be resolved. The best storylines will always just toy with resolution.

Camille: So, Baby Marx as an ideological cliffhanger…

Bartholomew: Right.

Camille: That’s built into the system!

Bartholomew: Exactly!

Camille: There is no ultimate truth, no finality. It’s all ongoing. And so really the idea that this documentary is constructed in a similar way makes it really relevant to the ideas.

Pedro: Yes, I think that often documentaries are used also with a rhetorical purpose designed to drive you to some conclusions. I’m more interested to lead you to questions, than to drive you towards a dogmatic embrace of a particular idea. In the twenty-first century, we should read Marx like any other classic. However, we should examine the idea of capitalism as the hegemonic final model. That is, people assume that capitalism is a natural law, that the world simply functions that way, and that a different model of social organization is impossible to achieve. During the twentieth century, the United States demonized left-wing ideas in such an emphatic way that the word communism had the meaning that terrorism has today. All this had a very clear objective, which was to impose a transnational economic model under the name of “liberal democracy.”  History is full of examples of crimes committed in the name of this paradigm.

Q & A with Clara Kim, the Walker’s new senior curator for visual arts

China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia … and now Minneapolis. Clara Kim arrives here August 1 after some particularly intensive globetrotting (more on that below). She was was most recently gallery director/curator at REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles’ center for innovative visual, media and performing arts, where she has worked since its inception in […]

China, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia … and now Minneapolis. Clara Kim arrives here August 1 after some particularly intensive globetrotting (more on that below). She was was most recently gallery director/curator at REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles’ center for innovative visual, media and performing arts, where she has worked since its inception in 2003. In her new role, Kim will continue to shape and develop the Walker’s program of exhibitions, artists’ residencies, acquisitions and special projects.

In between finishing a curatorial fellowship, preparing to host a two-day conference on it for international colleagues, and continuing her work at REDCAT — not to mention preparing to relocate — Kim has few moments to spare. However, she graciously used a few of them to answer some questions:

REDCAT is a relatively new institution for contemporary art, and you played a key role in building its international influence. What aspects of your work there are you bringing to the Walker?

REDCAT is a much smaller institution than the Walker but residencies and new commissions have been the core of its programming. Like the Walker, artists are central to the institution, which serves as a safe and supportive place for new artistic production. That along with an international, interdisciplinary perspective on contemporary artistic practice — which has also been very important to REDCAT, especially the Pacific Rim i.e. Asia and Latin America, as these regions are critical to Los Angeles and increasingly important in the global economic and cultural community.

You’re completing a circle of sorts by coming to Walker, since you began your career here as an intern in the late 90s. How have you seen contemporary art and the museum world evolving since then?

Immense changes. The boom and the subsequent downturn of the economy has greatly affected cultural production. As museums all over face pressure to meet the bottom line, we need to act and think creatively, and not lose sight of the things that matter.

What kinds of trends and ideas have dominated your practice as a curator?

I suppose a commitment to a diverse, international perspective on cultural production. I believe that art should challenge and open up our minds to new ideas and thoughts; as well as speak to the social and political moment we live in.

Can you talk about exhibitions, projects, or commissions you’ve undertaken that have stood out in your mind?

Two memorable projects for me at REDCAT are with the Tokyo-based architecture studio Atelier Bow-Wow — who created three original structures in response to their three-month residency in LA investigating the Case Study House program; and, more recently, Irish film/video artist Jesse Jones’ film shoot on the Russian choreographer Meyerhold’s studies in biomechanics that involved student actors and crew from CalArts. Integral to both projects was the collaboration, participation and engagement of many individuals across different fields and disciplines. The process of building relationships and trust became as critical as the end result. In fact, after the exhibition of Bow-Wow’s structures, which were made of recycled wood acquired through a local non-profit, we ended up dismantling the structures plank by plank and put the raw materials back into the cycle of use and circulation. It makes me very happy knowing that Bow-Wow’s houses morphed into skatebowls for at-risk urban youth and also helped beautification projects for Edgar Arceneaux’s Watts House Project.

Thanks to a curatorial fellowship from the Warhol Foundation, you recently had the opportunity to travel  throughout Asia and Latin America exploring alternative art spaces and independent projects. Any findings or experiences or travel anecdotes you can share from this experience?  

The research has been fascinating — full of surprises and contradictions — for instance, a region as wealthy as Hong Kong does not yet have a major contemporary art museum and a politically and economically unstable place such as Colombia has so many dynamic, critical artists and curators.

What did you learn from the fellowship that might affect your new role at the Walker?

That you need the support and participation of everyone in the building from top to bottom, from bottom to top, in order to make it work well.

What will you miss about Los Angeles? And/or what are you looking forward to in re-locating to Minneapolis/St. Paul?

Getting fresh produce year round. And taking up winter sports.