Blogs Untitled (Blog) The Collection

One Work: Mary Coyne on Jasper Johns’s Walkaround Time

In the One Work series, Walker curators explore the history of single works held within the permanent collection. Rather than examining these in isolation, the works are considered through the lens of their past exhibition history, exploring how an artwork’s context influences interpretation.  In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time will […]

Jasper Johns set elements for Walkaround Time 1968 plastic, paint Walker Art Center T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2000

Jasper Johns, set elements for Walkaround Time, 1968. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

In the One Work series, Walker curators explore the history of single works held within the permanent collection. Rather than examining these in isolation, the works are considered through the lens of their past exhibition history, exploring how an artwork’s context influences interpretation. 

In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time will be on view at the Walker as a centerpiece of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. It will be the third time the décor elements have been on view since their acquisition in 2000, although their exhibition history, both at the Walker and at fellow arts institutions far precedes this date. Why has Walkaround Time become such a fitting icon for interdisciplinary collaborative practice, despite being one of many striking stage décor works created by leading visual artists for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company?

In late 1967, Jasper Johns, who used his role as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to act as a curator rather than a creator, expressed to his mentor, Marcel Duchamp, his desire to create a stage décor for Cunningham’s new work based on the design of Duchamp’s famous The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, aka The Large Glass (1915–1923). Duchamp’s now well-known quip, “certainly but who is going to do all the work?” enabled the resourceful Johns to create the setting for one of Cunningham’s most well-known and richly created dances. Working in critic David Whitney’s loft on Canal Street, which afforded more space than Johns’s own studio, he stenciled the imagery from The Large Glass—”The Bride,” “The Seven Sisters,” “The Milky Way,” “The Cemetery of Uniforms,” “The Ocular Witness,” “The Glider,” and “The Chocolate Grinder”—onto vinyl sheeting, which was stretched over seven metal cube frames.  

For performances, the images “The Bride” and “The Milky Way,” which appear in the upper register of The Large Glass, were suspended from stage flies, with the remaining five units arranged below. This honored Duchamp’s request that the décor mirror the composition of his work during at least one portion of the dance. As composer Nelson Rivera has aptly noted, the dance relies on lateral movement—the dancers continually enter and exit the stage from the wings and move longitudinally across the stage either across or behind the décor elements.  This choreographic structure wryly comments on the dance’s title, which Cunningham explained  references the seemingly protracted minutes spent waiting for early computers to process information. The entire dance, from David Behrman’s spoken-word remixed score, to the décor, to the choreographic structure, is an homage to Duchamp. If it’s at all possible to summarize Marcel, Walkaround Time approaches this; the work is, in a sense, Cunningham’s variations on a Ballet Mécanique.1 The dancers themselves seem to take on the movement of machines, often stiff, mechanized. During the work’s intermission, or enter’acte, the dancers remain on stage, seated among the décor, stretching, talking—an adaptation of René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte, which screened midway through performances of the Ballet Suédois’s Relâche. During the second act of the dance, Cunningham removes his warmup clothes while running in place, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (1912). Although the movement and character of the dance is uniquely Cunningham’s, the choreographer embraced Duchamp’s evasive attitude towards authorship and style.

Johns himself is hesitant to claim ownership of the décor, calling the design, in a letter to former Walker Director Kathy Halbreich, “something other than a work by me.”2 Johns is correct in that Walkaround Time is something outside a work by a single artist, more a material embodiment of Marcel Duchamp’s impact on the post-war avant-garde and continued influence today.

The Walker was the first to exhibit Walkaround Time within exhibition galleries in 1994 as part of Duchamp’s Leg, an exhibition that looked to this very lineage of Duchamp’s impact on the younger generations of artists. Although the company was still actively performing—Cunningham had yet to create many of his most iconic works such as BIPED (1999) and Scenario (1997)—curator Joan Rothfuss thought outside the proverbial box in seeking to include these décor works, which were recently retired, but still owned by the company in the exhibition. Only a pair of the seven vinyl pieces on view were installed in the Walker galleries. Displayed in this way, their scale and texture simulated the haptic experience of moving and carrying the pieces across a stage. In the opening sequence of Walkaround Time, Cunningham is seen running in place behind The Chocolate Grinder, allowing the clear vinyl décor to simultaneously frame and obstruct his movement. Walkaround Time is one of the few dances in which the choreography itself was developed in consideration of the décor (Cunningham had his dancers use cardboard boxes in rehearsals until Johns’s work was completed). Dancers lift and carry the cubes and then each other with little differentiation. The cube becomes body becomes readymade. 3

Installation view of Art Performs Life, 1998. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

In 1998, Walkaround Time returned to the Walker for Art Performs Life: Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones, Merce Cunningham, for which the complete décor was installed and contextualized within Cunningham’s practice and within the designs artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Rei Kawakubo had created for the company. Following this seminal installation, the Walker approached the acquisition of the décor from the Cunningham Foundation, and the work formally entered the collection in 2000. It was only the second object created as a stage décor element for Cunningham to enter a museum collection (the Art Gallery of Ontario acquired Story (1964), a combine created by Robert Rauschenberg during a performance of Cunningham’s dance of the same name).

Former Emma Desjardins, Melissa Toogood, John Hinrichs, Marcie Munnerlyn and Brandon Collwes performing Events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during Dancing Around the Bride. Photo: Constance Mensh

Emma Desjardins, Melissa Toogood, John Hinrichs, Marcie Munnerlyn and Brandon Collwes performing Events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during Dancing Around the Bride. Photo: Constance Mensh

Ironically, Walkaround Time has never been installed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. In 2011, soon after the Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, included in which was an exhibition copy of Walkaround Time, the work was displayed on a low stage within the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp—a “conversation,” in the words of curator Carlos Basualdo, rather than an exhibition, that explored relationships between the leaders of post-war avant-garde. In this active and transitional installation, Basualdo and co-curator Ericka Battle allowed the work to move between décor and sculpture. When the stage was used for performances, the vinyl boxes were drawn up towards the ceiling, creating a newly configured setting to Cunningham’s choreography

The following year the décor was included in A House Full of Music: Strategies in Music and Art, an exhibition that celebrated John Cage’s centenary at the Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt. Although Cage did not create the score for Walkaround Time, his fingerprints on the vinyl cubes are undeniable. Cunningham’s partner since 1945, it was through Cage that Johns and Cunningham developed their close, if reverential, relationship with Duchamp. This is one of dozens of key collaborations Cage fostered through his easily generated and far-reaching network of composers and artists. Cage was more than simply a social interloper between these individuals, and it is key to note how the design of Walkaround Time was in keeping with Cage’s own artistic practice. For Cage, music contained elements of the visual. Outside of being drawn to the theatrical and dedicating much of his life and work to Cunningham’s dance company, Cage’s own musical scores, including his well-known, largely-blank pages for 4’33” (1952), conveyed an acute sense of space, that of both the paper and the space in which the composition was performed.

Walkaround Time set elements in the 2015 Philippe Parreno installation Hypothesis, 2015. Photo: © Rosalba Amorelli

In 2015, Philippe Parreno included the set elements for Walkaround Time as part of Hypothesis, an installation at the Hangar Bicocca in Milan. Parreno understood the unfixed qualities of Walkaround Time as expressed nine years before Walkaround Time by Johns: “It seems less the machine’s True Story capacities for romance than the capacity of the work to contain Duchamp’s huge precisions of thought-in-art that is conveyed by its vitality.”4

Parreno’s rearrangement of the décor in relation to the stage underscored Cage’s idea of the theatrical space as one that is inherently decentered, a space beckoning to be moved through much as the clear vinyl (or glass in Duchamp’s original work) is to be looked through. For Parreno, the décor element became an object of regeneration, a motif he re-contextualized after its creation by Duchamp and application through Cunningham and Johns. Parreno’s appropriation of Walkaround Time within his installation was a scheme used to indicate the “ability of an artwork to host another,” a type of parasitic homage in which each creation creates a possibility for something else to occur. In this way, he completed the transformation of one artwork into another, leaving the space below the suspended décor empty, a blank stage on which the shadows of The Large Glass suggested the possibility of new interpretations, embodiments, and regenerations.

In this way, Walkaround Time, with its origins at the nexus point of conceptual, performance, and composition practice, indicates superbly the shared and intersecting wavelengths Cunningham, Cage, Johns, and Duchamp rode at that moment in time, but act as a type of Rosetta Stone, rich with ideas from different perspectives that continue to foster an embodied approach to contemporary practice. The décor’s creative exhibition history to date is only the prelude to a performance in and around its clear shadows.

Footnotes

1 Ferdenand Léger, 1924 “dance” of Dadist collage for film.

2 Jasper Johns, letter to Kathy Halbreich, December 8, 1998, Walker Art Center archives.

3 David Vaughan notes how Walkaround Time was, at the time, one of the few times that Cunningham diverged from his philosophical approach that the music, décor and choreography be developed individually. See David Vaughan “‘Then I Thought About Marcel’: Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time” in Merce Cunningham :  Dancing in Space and Time (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), Richard Kostelanetz ed., 66–70.

4 Jasper Johns “Duchamp” in Scrap, no. 2, December 23, 1960, 4.

Installing X (2013): An Interview with Liz Larner

To commemorate today’s opening of the Walker’s new Vineland Place entrance, Visual Arts curator Pavel Pyś talks with Los Angeles–based artist Liz Larner about X (2013), the gleaming stainless steel sculpture that welcomes visitors. Working with abstract and geometric forms, Larner has consistently explored the possibilities of sculpture, and in particular the relationship between solid mass and volume. Oscillating between the […]

bg2016msg1102_Larner-install Building & Grounds; Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Walker Campus renovation. Installation of Liz Larner sculpture, "X" (acc no. 2015.27) at the main entrance at 725 Vineland on November 2, 2016. Photo by Carina Lofgren for Walker Art Center.

Liz Larner’s X (2013) during installation outside the new Walker main entrance. Photo: Carina Lofgren for Walker Art Center

To commemorate today’s opening of the Walker’s new Vineland Place entrance, Visual Arts curator Pavel Pyś talks with Los Angeles–based artist Liz Larner about X (2013), the gleaming stainless steel sculpture that welcomes visitors. Working with abstract and geometric forms, Larner has consistently explored the possibilities of sculpture, and in particular the relationship between solid mass and volume. Oscillating between the two- and three-dimensional, between drawing and sculpture, Larner’s works draw attention to the relationship between ourselves and the surrounding environment.

Pavel Pyś: Throughout your practice you’ve worked with a variety of materials, ranging from traditional ones, such as clay, steel, copper, and bronze, through to unstable ones, like champagne, caviar, and sour cream. How do you choose the materials you work with?

Liz Larner: That’s a great place to start. I really feel that material gives a sense of understanding and that it’s always a part of it. I choose materials by their significance, either playing a part in actual applications in the form or in terms of an attitude. So I use it for both, kind of. The same material can function for both. But that doesn’t always happen. The material is how we receive the content, the vehicle for the reception, a lot of times. And so it’s a part of it. I want that part of it to play a significant role in terms of how you understand the sculpture, whether it be the subject or the form or in-between those things.

Pyś: You mentioned that the material carries the content and the conceptual meaning. How does your experience differ when you have the material right to your hand and can touch it versus starting with the work that you can’t touch when you’re making it, for example as a rendering?

Larner: I think that has changed over time. For me, it has almost happened in reverse. I’m now at a point where I really want to have my hand be in the work, which might be part of the reason why I’ve moved to clay. When I started out, it was a more conceptual approach to “what materials are these?” I’ve always been interested in the difference between what something is called and what something is and how we receive it. I guess that was what was more important to me in the beginning, and it was almost some of the linguistic and somatic kind of interactions that the material produces. Now I find any individual hand very interesting. I think it’s something that we haven’t seen as much of recently; he digital has really changed that. In a way it’s more exciting to have a hand up against the digital in these times, when most objects that we encounter have some kind of digital aspect to their making.

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Liz Larner’s X (2013), installed in front of the new Walker entrance. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Pyś: When we think of sculpture, we usually think of solidity, mass, and sculpture being stable. However throughout your work—and this is also the case with X (2013)—there is a relationship in the work between volume and density. Looking across your practice, there is a consistent interest in how to achieve a sense of volume without a lot of stable, solid material.

Larner: Yes. I think that there’s so much there historically in the way that modernism ended. The beginning of postmodernism began, I think, in the late ‘60s with minimalism and post-minimalism. There was a kind of agreement a lot of times, and I think it was seen as the truth to the materials that mostly sculptors and specific object makers were abiding by. A lot of the current industrial methods were being used in sculpture. Though I think they were not interested in illusion, and so I feel that it kept them very true to the mass and density of the material. I looked at that a lot when I was thinking about making sculpture. And ways of changing those relationships between the mass and the volume, or the density and the mass, or the density and the mass and the volume, became something that I sense. Just even seeing a volume at that size, that isn’t made to seem like a solid or is a solid, kind of puts your senses on notice to look more intensely and explore the space of the sculpture and the sculpture itself more intently. I think it intensifies the reception because there’s the sense that it may not be real even though it obviously is real.

Pyś: The line has played a key place in your practice, and indeed X looks a bit like a drawing that has been pulled and pinched and moved into space. How important is drawing to your practice?

Larner: The two-dimensional is important to me. I do make drawings, and I make a lot of drawings in preparation for sculptures. And I make a lot of models. But drawing is not a primary part of my practice. For me, the kind of blurring of the distinctions between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional has been something that I’ve been trying to do for a long time, and that’s kind of where drawing comes in. And it has come in in many different ways.

Pyś: You talked a little bit about the relationship to material and the digital. X was entirely computer-generated. How did you conceive of the work, as you were working with computer imagery?

Liz Larner, X (2012), Maple, 54.5 x 118 x 102 inches (138.4 x 299.7 x 259.1 cm), © Liz Larner, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Liz Larner, X (2012), Maple, 54.5 x 118 x 102 inches (138.4 x 299.7 x 259.1 cm), © Liz Larner, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Larner: Well, I had already made a form on the computer, a model. I wanted to use that form and sort of destabilize it or make it even less readable by imposing “X” over it, and then deleting that amount of form that was in those empty spaces. So “X” took on that form, without relaying the rest of it but just giving a partial aspect of it. That was done digitally as well.

Pyś: How does that shift your approach to the work? I imagine that when you have access to something that’s right at your hands, such as a pen and paper, then there is a certain immediacy. How does that sense of immediacy shift when you’re working with something that’s on the computer screen?

Larner: It’s not that immediate. I mean, it’s very immediate, in the sense that you can do things quickly, and you can do things that you can’t do by hand. So it’s a really good tool for mocking up. But in the end, it’s so different because you’re still not seeing the same thing that you’re going to have. It’s a much different kind of experience to try to make something from the ground or by hand than to have the computer to relay something, and you have to give over to it. Then what happens is when you get it to the stage of making the thing from all of this computer information, you see what you’ve got, so in a weird way, although it has been very clearly rendered, still it’s the spatiality of it in a real space that shows you what you have. So there’s an area of not knowing. Even though it clearly spells it out while you’re making it, you can’t really—as a sculpture, it can’t truly be imagined even though these tools are so powerful that you can move things around and look at them from many angles and simulate surfaces.

Pyś: The version of X in our collection is made of mirror polished stainless steel. In 2013, you showed another version of the sculpture, made of maple, at the University of Texas. How would you describe the difference in experiencing these two materially very different works?

X (2013) installed on the Walker terraces. Photo: Gene Pittman

X (2013) installed on the Walker terraces. Photo: Gene Pittman

Larner: It goes back to your first question. It was absolutely interesting for me to see the same form in the final scale in the two materials because they have such a completely different feeling to them. The one in maple is warm and inviting, and it served to let me experience the form in full scale. I think that one of the things about X that’s important to me is that one can be inside the sculpture which we’re talking about, about not having the full mass with the volume, you know, being able to enter into the space of the sculpture and be in the middle of it. That’s something that the experience in the maple is—I mean, the wood is warm and kind of golden, there’s a sense of stability in that and it gives you a completely other feeling than the bright, hard, reflective, fast-moving surface of the stainless steel. So it couldn’t be more different even though they’re the same form.

Pyś: Would you consider the maple X a model or an independent, separate work?

Larner: I wanted to make it in another material. I didn’t want to go directly full-scale into the stainless steel. Stainless steel was a huge commitment; there needed to be something that was in another material so that I could see the form. So I decided to do it in maple and thought that it would be interesting to see the two different materials. But the main reason was simply to have another material that wasn’t quite as extreme in all ways as the stainless steel before I committed to that.  But it’s a piece on its own. I don’t think of it now as a model, even though it served that purpose in the kind of trajectory of which piece I made first.

Liz Larner, Variable (1990), Painted bronze, 12 x 10 x 3/4 inches (30.5 x 25.4 x 1.9 cm) each, Edition of 25, © Liz Larner, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Liz Larner, Variable (1990), Painted bronze, 12 x 10 x 3/4 inches (30.5 x 25.4 x 1.9 cm) each, Edition of 25, © Liz Larner, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Pyś: I want to ask you about “X” as a glyph, which recurs throughout your work as a sign of potential of the unknown, as you mentioned before. How did you arrive at this particular character or glyph?

Larner: Well, Variable (1990) was the first piece that I did, which was an addition of an “X” that has two very different sides and, I think, five different colors that went throughout, so it’d mostly be different colors on different sides. It’s a mathematical idea of a variable. It’s such a great idea, the simple graphic form can contain anything. It’s illimitable. I felt like that’s such a usable  form for  a series of sculptures, because I think it allows  an abstract sculptor, to be able to have a motif that changes– use it as a variable but in a sculptural way. Each time I do it, it has a different trajectory, I think, it’s going in a different direction, and can be something else.

Liz Larner discussing during installation at the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building (ATEC), The University of Texas at Dallas © The University of Texas at Dallas, 2013

 

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.

A Radical Presence: Remembering Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016)

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by […]

va2014po_patterson Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo by Erin Smith.

Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo: Erin Smith

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by his generosity, his fierce memory, and his remarkable ability to tell stories, especially at the noble age of 80. Patterson, who passed away June 25, was a founding member of Fluxus, an international, postwar art movement that challenged traditional art-making modes by combining visual art, music, and performance. Like his Fluxus peers, Patterson created instruction-based works—what he called “compositions for actions”—that encouraged situations allowing for direct engagement with participants or the audience, often through humorous actions. Fluxus unlocked the potential of art to be fun, engaging, and accessible to all people, making it perhaps the most influential and significant experiments in the history of art. (more…)

Magazine as Storehouse: Merce Cunningham and Aspen 5+6 (1967)

“In calling it a ‘magazine’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”[1] ―Phyllis Johnson It was while attending the Aspen International Design conference in 1964 in Aspen, Colorado, that editor Phyllis Glick (1926–2001) came up with a groundbreaking idea for an art […]

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

“In calling it a ‘magazine’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”[1]

―Phyllis Johnson

It was while attending the Aspen International Design conference in 1964 in Aspen, Colorado, that editor Phyllis Glick (1926–2001) came up with a groundbreaking idea for an art magazine. Named after the town where it was conceived, Aspen would not resemble a run-of-the mill publication, but rather, as Glick wrote in the inaugural editorial note, a “storehouse,” a multimedia magazine in a box that would house artist projects, writings, and objects, all of which demanded a new kind of reader—an active participant. Instead of a fixed format, each issue, of ten produced between 1965 and 1971, reflected the conceptual concerns of different guest editors and designers invited by Glick, who, under the nom de plume Phyllis Johnson, oversaw all aspects of the magazine’s production.[2]

Aspen’s innovative and shape-shifting format defied the very notion of the mainstream magazine. It stymied many, including the US Postal Service, but was welcomed by the American art community who craved an alternative platform for experimental work.[3] The mass-produced, ephemeral magazine format was well-suited to the conceptual art practices of the time, which eschewed the elitism of the art world gallery system in favor of reproducible, photographic, and text-based works.[4]  With its expansive reach through the mail delivery system and price of $8 an issue, Aspen enabled greater access to art and ideas in the United States and abroad.

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Edited by artist Brian O’Doherty (1928–) and designed by Lynn Letterman and David Dalton, number 5+6, “The Minimalism Issue,” remains one of Aspen’s most ambitious efforts. O’Doherty, in his editorial note, referred to the double issue as a “miniature museum,” which had indeed replaced the white cube of the gallery with a small off-white box.[5] Secured by a string and button, the box enclosed an abundance of diverse media that provided a curated selection of 1960s conceptual practices out of New York[6]: artist projects by O’Doherty, Dan Graham (1942–), Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), Mel Bochner (1940–), Tony Smith (1912–1980); reams of art films by Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Robert Morris (1931–), László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), and Hans Richter (1888–1976); five flexi-disc records that included music by John Cage (1912–1992) and Morton Feldman (1926–1987), and recordings of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), Richard Huelsenbeck (1892–1974), William S. Burroughs (1914–1997), and Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008); as well as musical scores and advertisements. It also included three staple-bound essays by Susan Sontag (1933–2004), George Kubler (1912–1996), and Roland Barthes (1915–1980). Incidentally, this was the first publication of Barthes’ famous essay in which he pronounced the death of the author, a claim that subsequently launched an entire field of literary criticism.

Whether it was Tony Smith’s build-it-yourself model of his minimalist sculpture The Maze (1967) or the many films and audio recordings that required hours of attention, in the wake of the death of the author, issue 5+6 championed the birth of the reader, foregrounding his or her role in participating in the production of art and ideas. Therefore, the same year that art critic Michael Fried (1939–) published the iconic essay in which he declared himself against theater, specifically the theatricality of minimalism, which existed only for its audience, Aspen 5+6 was producing minimalist art on a mass level, disseminating the magazine to a reading audience located across the country, who were cast as active participants.

Among the many treasures of issue number 5+6 is a flexi-disc of two recordings by Merce Cunningham. Side “A” features Cunningham reading his seminal 1952 essay “Space, Time, Dance,” in which he expresses the views that initiated a “choreographic turn,” in modern American dance while Side B labeled simply “Further Thoughts” includes an interview with Cunningham from 1967 in which he expands upon his theory of dance fifteen years later.

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Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Cunningham’s measured, but conversational reading of “Space, Time, Dance” comes through surprisingly clearly on the warm, crackling flexi-disc recording. This essay touches on many key artistic strategies that would characterize his dance career. His discussion revolves around the equal importance of space and time in the dance, and he describes his innovative “formal structure based on time,”[7] as well as his commitment to using chance operations to create indeterminate choreographies that objectify everyday movement, blurring the boundaries between art and life. Just a year earlier, John Cage had begun experimenting with chance operations in his music. Cage created extensive charts that catalogued different musical elements and used the structure of time to determine the order of those elements by way of chance procedures. This method had a profound influence on Cunningham, who sought to use the devices of chance and indeterminacy in his dances, which he experimented with for the first time in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951).[8]

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Jasper Johns’ décor for MCDC’s Walkaround Time, which consisted of seven inflatable plastic “pillows,” each displaying a different image from Duchamp’s masterwork The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1928. Collection Walker Art Center

Reacting to American modern dance that sought to express the “new” but could not shirk the expressionist and narrative forms of ballet, Cunningham saw chance operations as offering a new kind of freedom from the old forms, in which dance could be “a space in which anything can happen.”[9] Using the formal structure of time measured by a stopwatch as brackets that enclosed the dance, Cunningham would precisely choreograph a sequence of movements and then allow chance, the toss of a coin for example, to determine their arrangement. Cunningham insisted that all parts of his dances—choreography, scenography, music—be independently created and only come together afterwards, all corresponding in the same way to space and time. All of the elements of the performance on stage are thus “autonomous” but “connected at structural points.”[10] He describes his artistic process as “man-made” though “the final synthesis” has a “natural result.”[11] As a consequence, the “dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music.”[12] Instead of being subordinate to one or the other, dance and music are free agents that only conform to the predetermined formal structure of time. In doing so, Cunningham was constantly challenging himself and his dancers. They would learn the choreographies in silence, using timed notation and often only hear the accompanying music for the first time in performance. Most of all, his dances challenged audiences who were accustomed to a linear progression of familiar, synchronized movement that took place center stage and in concert with the music. In Cunningham’s dances, audiences was presented with simultaneous but disparate choreographies occurring all over the stage that were independent from the music—a landscape of space and time they could navigate on their own terms.[13]

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For his 1969 décor design for MCDC, Robert Morris created a mobile column complete with airplane runway lights. During the performance, the column traversed the stage from left to right and back, shining the bright lights against a reflective scrim hung upstage and the dancers’ costumes, which were covered in reflective paint. Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Canfield. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1969. Photo: James Klosty

Rather than the expressive or symbolic movement, Cunningham’s interest lay in creating “pure movement,” performed simply as a thing in itself such that “what is seen is what it is.”[14] At the core of his fascination with chance is Cunningham’s embracing of the beauty of the randomness and the logic of everyday life. In a stunning turn of phrase, Cunningham asks the listener to consider an hour of their day, and all of the occurrences that naturally fill that hour, and how “each thing […] succeeds each thing.”[15] Cunningham wanted his dances to have a similar effect, of a set of seemingly natural occurrences taking place over the course of a period of time. Similar to Duchamp’s readymades, Cunningham saw everything in life as eventful and everyday movement—whether riding a bicycle onstage, getting rained on, running out to get a cup of coffee, or simply standing—as worthy in and of itself of a place on the stage. “Dancing,” as he explains, “is a visible action of life.”[16]

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Mobile enough to take on MCDC’s first world tour in 1964, Robert Rauschenberg’s free-standing stage décor for MCDC’s Minutiae prompted interaction by the dancers who moved around and through itRobert Rauschenberg  décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976,  oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror and string, on wood. Collection Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

Issue 5+6 is dedicated to the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), who famously declared that “things exist, we do not need to create them; we only need to seize the relationships between them.”[17] However, it might as well have been dedicated to Cunningham, whose dances grasped the rare and beautiful indeterminate choreographies derived from chance operations. Aspen 5 +6, in many ways, reflects Cunningham’s philosophy of dance. It also maps a network of influential artists and composers with whom he had collaborated or would do so in the future: Cage, his partner in life and art; Rauschenberg, who met and began working with Cunningham at Black Mountain College, served as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and designed more than 20 costumes and stage decors for Cunningham; Feldman, who composed music for multiple productions; Morris whose work greatly influenced Cunningham and Cage, and who would design the stage décor for Cunningham’s Canfield in 1969; Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984), whose film projections would illuminate the stage in Cunningham’s Variations V (and who filmed Morris’s performance Site (1964), which was included in the issue); and finally, Duchamp, whose experimental work with chance, the everyday, and the boundaries between art and life inspired and shaped the practices of Cunningham, Cage, and many fellow artists in their circle. A sustained look at Aspen 5 + 6 provides just a glimpse of the vast constellations of art practices grouped around Cunningham that will be on view in the forthcoming Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition in February 2017.

Peruse all ten issues of Aspen at Ubu Web.

 

Footnotes

[1] Phyllis Johnson, “Letter from the Editor,” Aspen, no. 1 (1965): n.p.

[2] Allen, Gwen. 2011. Artists’ Magazines: an alternative space for art. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press), 43.

[3] Ibid, 49.

[4] Ibid, 52.

[5] Ibid, 49.

[6] Ibid, 49.

[7] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[8] Vaughan, David, and Melissa Harris. 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 58.

[9] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[10] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[11] Cunningham, Merce. 1951 “The function and technique of dance.” 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 60.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Vaughan, David, and Melissa Harris. 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 276.

[14] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Edson, Laurie. 2000. Reading relationally: postmodern perspectives on literature and art. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 63.

 

The Patron Saint of Ruined Media: On Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna

As evidenced by the wonderful interview between Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Juliana Huxtable (b.  1987) in Art Forum this summer, Hershman Leeson’s pioneering media legacy continues to provoke and inspire contemporary artists. Here is a look at one of her daring technological accomplishments, which is part of the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection.   And on […]

As evidenced by the wonderful interview between Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Juliana Huxtable (b.  1987) in Art Forum this summer, Hershman Leeson’s pioneering media legacy continues to provoke and inspire contemporary artists. Here is a look at one of her daring technological accomplishments, which is part of the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection.

 

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”[1]

 

Lorna (created between 1979 and 1983) was the first interactive piece of video art created for LaserDisc, and uses the technological capabilities of the LaserDisc to tell a compelling story about an agoraphobic woman.[2]  Renowned for their visual clarity (particularly when compared to other media at the time, such as Betamax or VHS) LaserDiscs were nevertheless never commercially viable due to their expense and inability to record television. LaserDiscs prefigured DVDs and Blu-rays in several capacities, not least in their ability to play, pause, fast forward, and select various options from a menu stored on the disc. All of these technologically advanced affordances are available to the player in Lorna, which combines long clips of video with interactions best compared to point-and-click graphic adventure games. Furthermore, because Lorna’s agoraphobia is facilitated by various kinds of technology (in particular the television and the telephone) it feels appropriate to access her story via obvious and almost obtrusive technological means.

Lorna opens much like a montage at the beginning of a television show—it is even accompanied by a strangely upbeat country song. After this introduction, Hershman Leeson’s camera pans around the room only to settle on a pile of mundane objects. These objects, which include a fish bowl, a television, and a wallet, introduce the player to the central mechanic of Lorna: branching menus. The player navigates the menu easily with a remote to select one of the objects. Similar to the home screen on commercial DVDs with forking options (Play Movie, Subtitles, Bloopers, etc.) this first screen helps launch the player into different parts of the piece. Exploring Lorna’s environment (which includes the ability to watch her television programs, look through her wallet, and even have sex with a delivery man) helps the player feel empathy for her and her condition. Lorna’s life is expressed and contained by the limits of her apartment, which is why Hershman Leeson’s camera lingers and repeatedly returns to Lorna’s possessions ̶ they, after all, have a heightened relevance in her life. The objects themselves can trigger a new video clip or take the player to another menu for other choices (for instance, selecting the television takes the player to a number of different television segments), and it is impossible to know in advance if the object you just clicked on will lead you back to the title menu, back to the screen you were just on, or to another part of the narrative entirely.

Compared to both Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) and Zork (1977), the key early adventure videogames which relied on typed text commands and had no visuals, the blending of film and photography with interactive menus in Lorna was a major technologic achievement. Merging film and game, Lorna stands at the edge of how media is often demarcated, requiring input from the player even as it remains primarily voyeuristic.

lorna_01

Image credit: “Prehistories of Media Art: 1965- Present.” http://systemsapproach.net/edu/SAIC/AHTC/PHONM/FLL06/03.html, accessed July 14, 2016

As the work’s sequences are not fixed in a specific order, Lorna unfolds in a nonlinear way that differs from playthrough to playthrough. Ultimately, by navigating through menus in different orders, the player can conclude the story with three wildly different endings: Lorna can kill herself, leave her apartment for Los Angeles, or destroy her television set. This last choice is particularly poignant, as Lorna’s connection to her telephone and television enable and reinforce her agoraphobia. Hershman Leeson’s prescience about the way technology has become more and more all-consuming in our daily lives underscores Lorna’s continued relevance. Or at least it should.

This relevance is often lost in the opaqueness of Lorna’s user interface. I didn’t fully understand Lorna’s complexity until I saw a diagram that explained how its sequences fit together and branched off from one another.

LornaSchematic-1

Image credit: Lynn Hershman Leeson, ” Schematic of Lorna Videodisk Branching System,” 1984, ink on paper.

This schematic gave me a much clearer picture of the interactivity and complexity Hershman Leeson was trying to cultivate in Lorna. Unfortunately, this interactivity was more forcefully conveyed to me in the schematic than in any interaction with the piece itself. This is because, like so many media creations, Lorna was ahead of the technology it needed. To create Lorna, Hershman Leeson coopted an available media form (LaserDisc) that was, ultimately, not optimal for her purpose. Lorna easily becomes stuck on particular passages, has trouble returning to its previous menus, and can be fast-forwarded in such a way that it circumvents its complex choices. The Walker Archive houses the original disc along with the transferred DVD, and primary researchers are only allowed to play the DVD. The problems with the DVD magnify the inherited problems with the original disc—problems that are an artifact of using the laserdisc in a way it was not meant to be used. Hershman Leeson has noted that she likes “to preserve the glitches of time, the underbelly of an era … I keep the scars intact.” Ontological honesty is refreshing in an era with an insatiable appetite for reskinning and iterating characters and storylines (see the recent success of Pokémon GO, the record-setting box-office attendance numbers for the latest Star Wars, etc.). These scars, inherited from the original LaserdDisc, distract from the experience so much that Lorna is almost unplayable on DVD.

Either way, both the disc and the DVD’s capacity for interactivity are woefully antiquated when compared to any modern computer. Choosing to program for this format is gloriously inefficient in terms of pure interactivity, but very helpful if, like Hershman Leeson, the images and video are just as important as the interactive elements.[3] Interacting with Lorna in its current DVD state, one cannot help but wish it had been preserved on a computer. However, a transcription of that sort would have completely obfuscated the transgressive way Hershman Leeson expanded the uses of the laserdisc.

Like Shelley’s fictitious description of the ruined monolithic status of the great king and ruler Ozymandias (inspired by the pharaohs of old), Lorna is no longer intact (and perhaps never was as powerful or as realized as it pretends to be). Just as Ozymandias’s  head is no longer attached to his body, and his sneering visage looks out onto a wasteland, Lorna is a ruin. Lorna is now the outline of what it once was, and if not a warning to media artists, she can be seen as patron saint of the Ruined Digital. The ambition of Lorna coupled, with its migrations from one hardware to another, has ensured the work would quickly become unstable and unplayable. Given that the television is an antagonist throughout Lorna, there is something appealing about this ruinous state, as if the character herself might be able to escape due to the imperfections of the technology; by transferring the choices to a new system, perhaps she will be able to move away from life on the screen.

Notes

[1] Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “Ozymandias,” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002, 109.

[2] Hershman Leeson, Lynn, and Peter Weibel. Lynn Hershman Leeson Civic Radar. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2016, 160.

[3] From personal experience programming in ActionScript 3.0, even current computers and programs do not offer a very good platform for combining video/photography along with interactive elements.

This Week in History: Merce Cunningham’s Les Noces

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s […]

Merce Cunningham and Brandeis University Dancers in Les Noces, June 12, 1952

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s strict independence of the art forms, although philosophically antithetical, produced some of the greatest dances of the twentieth century. Composers Igor Stravinsky and John Cage are perhaps best known for the work they produced for the Ballets Russes and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, respectively. Diaghilev commissioned stage décors and costume designs by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst; Cunningham would work closely with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris. Due to their international prominence, including the American tours of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (the post-war company formed after Diaghilev’s death), the Ballets Russes’s impact on American dance, and on the young Cunningham, are undeniable.

Cunningham would have had his first opportunity to see the famous Russian company firsthand through New York performances by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the Fall of 1939. Whether he saw the performances of Les Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), Scheherezade, and Petrushka is uncertain, however as Cunningham scholar David Vaughan has stated, the qualities of these works “would have already become part of what is available to any choreographer.”[1] Cunningham’s own exploration of composition, abstraction, and application of Dada and dance’s relationship to the music (or lack thereof) all hold roots in Diaghilev’s ballets. Diaghilev’s influence on Cunningham can be traced as far back as 1952, when Cunningham, still early in his professional career as a choreographer, was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein of the Festival of Creative Arts to create a new choreographic work after one of the Ballets Russes’s most significant ballets—Bronislava Nijinska‘s Les Noces.

This week is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the first Festival of Creative Arts, an annual two-day program of performances of music, dance, and theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the festival continues to be hosted at Brandeis today. In 1952, Bernstein was already an influential figure on the East Coast, having served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 1943. By 1952, Bernstein was heading the orchestral and conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer orchestral program founded in 1940 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

The first Festival of the Arts (June 13–14, 1952) premiered Bernstein’s one-act social commentary opera Trouble In Tahiti and Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, accompanied by symposia on jazz and poetry (with performances by Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, and a reading by William Carlos Williams). For the first Festival of the Arts, Bernstein also commissioned Cunningham to create two almost entirely different projects—to choreograph an original work to Pierre Schaffer’s composition Pour un Homme Seul (1949–1950) and a restaging of Les Noces (1923), a ballet originally choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Nijinska to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Bernstein’s invitation was significant, as up to that point Cunningham had only been commissioned by Lincoln Kirsten for the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet) in 1947 and received a select few laudatory reviews in the New York Herald Tribune for brief solo works. While Cunningham’s skills as a dancer were recognized as early as his performances with Martha Graham Company in 1939, he was yet to receive significant recognition as a choreographer.

Nijinska’s ballet, a simple narrative of a Russian peasant wedding, was already antithetical to the type of work Cunningham had been producing. As opposed to translating Nijinska’s work, Cunningham rechoreographed the piece, taking the dramatic concept and music as his starting points. Cunningham’s dancers would later remember “leaping movements” and an athleticism not present in the Ballets Russes’s original choreography. Donald McKayle, a dancer in Cunningham’s class, described the movement as “raw, not sophisticated,” which is consistent with the dynamic solos Cunningham had been choreographing since the mid-1940s.[2] Although no recording of the performance survives, the below photographs of rehearsals show the production including full costumes designed by artist Howard Bay, which were more ornate and dramatic than the fairly simple original designs by Natalia Goncharova for the original Ballets Russes production.

Les Noces, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 1923, Music Division, Library of Congress

Howard Bay, copy of sketched costumes study for Les Noces" 1952. Walker Art Center 2011.313

Both projects required Cunningham not only to develop new a choreography but to teach it to Brandeis University students. Since 1950, Cunningham had been teaching daily dance classes at his 8th Avenue studio in New York, and by 1952 he had developed a small, dedicated group of dancers, for whom he had begun developing a new technique. These dancers made up the core cast for Cunningham’s work at Brandeis. After receiving the commission he worked in New York, developing the movement and choreography for the principal roles, and then developing the structure of the cast with the Brandeis Dance Group later in the spring.

Les Noces, and the far more experimental Pour un Homme Seul, are key to considering Cunningham’s career-long connection between pedagogy and his own creative practice. Although on numerous occasions he would profess his frustration with teaching (“I hate teaching. The repetition that is demanded by [class] drives me crazy”[3]), Cunningham was keenly aware of its importance to his development of new work and its role at the heart of his philosophy of dance. Bernstein also valued the importance of continued teaching throughout his career: “[Teach and learn] are interchangeable words. When I teach I learn, when I learn I teach,” he would often profess.[4] Bernstein, then on the faculty at Brandeis, created the festival not only as a platform to support new work by key figures in visual arts, music, dance, and theater but also as a multi-disciplinary access point for the university’s students. For Cunningham, the translation between his own idea for a movement and the dancer’s interpretation through their own unique style, continued to be a key aspect of his philosophy. “I use class like a laboratory,” Cunningham would later reflect, “something occurs to me and if I could do it myself I would figure it out and show it to them.” [5]

Teaching not only provided Cunningham with his main source of income in the 1950s, but also allowed him the means for experimentation. The Brandeis commissions were only one of a number of Cunningham’s engagements in 1952. Earlier that spring, Cunningham and his partner the composer John Cage, briefly taught a series of classes Black Mountain College. Later in June, Cunningham hosted a six-week summer course at the Dancer’s Studio in New York before again returning to Black Mountain College, followed by a brief engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Constructing his own approaches to movement through teaching, and instilling a personal dedication to his craft through the ritual of daily class, were key to Cunningham’s development as a dancer. Bernstein’s choice to commission the young Cunningham to work from Nijinska’s existing influential work allowed Cunningham to infuse a historical score with his own interpretation and sense of the present. Filtering historical influences while pushing his own creative boundaries is the nature of Cunningham’s practice—and partly why his work continues to resonate in the present. Always an original thinker, Cunningham’s reflections on history are uniquely his own and always approached as a means to a new creative challenge.

Merce Cunningham: Common Time opens at the Walker Art Center February 8, 2017.

Footnotes:

[1] David Vaughan, “Diaghilev/Cunningham” Art Journal  34, no. 2 (Winter 1974–1975): 140.

[2] Donald McKayle, quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997): 64.

[3] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

[4] Leonard Bernstein: Teachers & Teaching (accessed June 11, 2016).

[5] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

Erasing the Photographer’s Hand: Phil Collins’s Free Fotolab

Phil Collins’s free fotolab is included in the Walker exhibition Ordinary Pictures, on view February 27–October 9, 2016. In his work free fotolab (2009), British artist Phil Collins presents 80 photographs that exactly fill the standard 35mm slide carousel he uses to project the images onto the gallery wall. Although Collins is a photographer, he […]

An image from Phil Collin's free fotolab, 2009

An image from Phil Collins’s free fotolab, 2009

Phil Collins’s free fotolab is included in the Walker exhibition Ordinary Pictures, on view February 27–October 9, 2016.

In his work free fotolab (2009), British artist Phil Collins presents 80 photographs that exactly fill the standard 35mm slide carousel he uses to project the images onto the gallery wall. Although Collins is a photographer, he is not the author of any of the photographs shown in this work. The artist sourced the images in free fotolab by putting out a public call for rolls of undeveloped 35mm film, which he agreed to process and return to participants free of charge, on the condition that they cede all rights and claims of ownership to him. The images displayed over the nine minute, 20 second slide show depict people engaged in everyday life: celebrating with their families, going to the beach, having a picnic, drinking a cup of tea. In free fotolab, Collins presents a collage of normal, ordinary pictures, the commonplace subject matter of which is contrasted by its presentation in a formal gallery setting.

While no background is given for free fotolab, closely examining contextual clues (such as bottles of the Macedonian beer “Bitolsko” or an entire shelf full of books in Serbo-Croatian) reveals that some of these images can be traced to the Balkans. This isn’t surprising, as Collins has spent a significant portion of his professional career working in the region. The artist’s first video work, a 12-minute piece called how to make a refugee (1999), was shot in Macedonia during the same year as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Collins created the work after witnessing reporting methods employed by official news media covering the crisis in the region. In how to make a refugee, we see journalists directing and posing a displaced Kosovar Albanian family they are photographing. The reporters appear to show little concern for how their instructions are received by the family they direct; instead the journalists are focused on crafting a saleable news story for their domestic audiences. By filming this process of documentation, Collins exposes the imposed construction of a refugee narrative designed to fit Western consumers’ expectations about what war reporting looks like, and by extension, what refugees look like.

Phil Collins, how to make a refugee, 1999.

Phil Collins, how to make a refugee, 1999

After how to make a refugee, Collins continued with his nontraditional representation of individuals living in crisis zones. In a 2001 work entitled young serbs, Collins presents portraits of young Serbians lying serenely in the grass on a sunny day. “Anyway, here they are,” the artist writes in an email to a colleague, “romantic, sexy, deathly, intimate, posed, bucolic, disappointed, suspicious… I wanted to escape the urban grit and aggressive posturing of Western photography in Belgrade and try and pick at a romantic sensibility.”[1] Collins’s desire to show an alternative side of his subjects often erased in typical crisis reporting results in the production of more human images, immediately familiarizing for his audience what is typically portrayed as “other.” His portraits show individuals as themselves, not as people cast in roles of refugee, victim, or aggressor. The power of such personal images is undeniable on an emotional level, and it is exactly this human intimacy that makes the photographs political. Collins explains this idea succinctly in a comment regarding his work filming Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah: “If you ignore the people who inhabit these places, you don’t feel bad about bombing them.”[2]

A portrait from young serbs, 2001.

A portrait from young serbs, 2001

In much of his practice, Collins attempts to return some measure of control over representation to his subjects through the subversion of traditional corporate media narratives. The idea of agency for the subject is seen especially in real society, a 2002 project in which Collins advertised for anyone willing to remove some of their clothing to come to a luxury suite in the Maria Cristina Hotel in San Sebastian to be photographed. Collins accepted everyone who wished to take part in the project and photographed his participants engaged in any activity they chose. People are seen dancing, talking, lounging, and undressing themselves and others—one couple even took a bath. With this work, Collins reduces the influence of the photographer in the process of image creation, relinquishing control over both the choice of subject as well as the direction of the storyline.

A couple takes a bath for real society, 2002.

A couple takes a bath for real society, 2002

free fotolab can be seen as a further attempt by Collins to erase the hand of the photographer from his final product. These images are objects of truly democratic representation—they were taken for and by ordinary people with no notion of their eventual public display. They are free from any posing, framing, or staging within in aesthetic context, and both the anonymous authors and subjects reveal themselves in an uninhibited way. By showcasing these images, Collins finds a way to present the viewer with photographs untouched by his artistic bias.

By removing the professional photographer from the process of image creation, free fotolab asks its audience to consider the role of the photographer and what influence this editorial role might have over how one ultimately perceives photographic subjects. No image can ever be truly impartial; the photographer is always the unseen third party, the filter through which an image is passed before it reaches its audience. Collins’s work draws awareness to the presence of this filter, asking us to question to what extent our perceptions of the world, and especially of distant others, are based on the photographic narratives that are created for us.

Installation view of free fotolab, 2009.

Installation view of free fotolab, 2009

NOTES

[1] Collins, Phil, and Milton Keynes Gallery, Yeah, You, Baby You, (Milton Keynes England: Milton Keynes Gallery, 2005), 54.

[2] Ibid., 16.

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