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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.

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Benjamin Patterson, Variations for Double-Bass, circa 1962

Patterson was a crucial figure in Fluxus’s founding, although he is rarely recognized in the same light as other American artists of the movement such as Yoko Ono or John Cage. Perhaps his 20-year “retirement” from art in 1963—after creating work and collaborating with artists and musicians in Europe for just three short years—might account for part of his lack of recognition as a Fluxus character. Or perhaps it was his “radical” status as the sole African American artist and musician in the movement that excluded him from the annals of art history, pointing to the problematic way in which history is recorded. Despite his position, Patterson was a determined individual with a voracious appetite for learning and found joy and inspiration in discovery; he embodied and lived in the spirit of Fluxus. He considered the central function of the artist to be “a duality of discoverer and educator.”[1]

Because of his willingness to experiment, he lived a storied existence with a wide spectrum of life experiences—his early classical training in double bass, his interest in natural sciences (which led him to clean cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo), his later role as deputy director of the department of cultural affairs of the City of New York (to name just one of the many arts administration positions he held). As a student of music and composition at University of Michigan, Patterson proclaimed himself on a mission to be “the first black to ‘break the color-barrier’ in an American symphony orchestra.”[2] After several attempts at auditions in which he was immediately turned away because of the color of his skin, he moved to Canada and held the position of principal bassist in the Halifax Symphony Orchestra. Ironically, his time in Canada was cut short when he was enlisted in the US Army, serving for two years in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, based in Stuttgart. It was here, separated from the segregation and charged climate of 1950s America, that Patterson found his place in the experimental music scene of Germany.

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Benjamin Patterson, Paper Piece, 1960

Patterson moved to Cologne in 1960 and met John Cage, who profoundly shaped his thinking around indeterminacy and chance operations, which led him to marry his experimentations in classical music improvisation with actions tied to musical composition. His earliest “composition for action” work, Paper Piece (1960) consists of a set of instructions that includes the number of participants, materials to be used, and actions to be taken, such as crumpling, twisting, and rubbing together paper. With Paper Piece, not only did Patterson challenge the traditional music score by replacing music with actions, but, like Cage, he also created a system with variables determined by chance.

In an interview with Patterson by former Walker associate curator Eric Crosby and curatorial fellow Liz Glass, the artist explained how important audience participation was for Paper Piece, noting that the work was created for the de-skilled participant: “You didn’t have to study an instrument for 20 years before you could realize this score. Anybody could, with a fair amount of sensitivity, get some interesting sounds and activity out of paper.”[3] The democratic nature of the work appealed to Patterson, which stood in stark opposition to his experience in musical training, wherein the musician’s expertise divided him from the audience. Paper Piece challenged the great chasm between performer and audience. Pushing against the rigidity of classical music composition, where a score is expected to be performed the same way each time, Patterson experimented with openness and indeterminacy in the end result: “I was just fascinated with the idea of the impossibility of actually doing it, you know, of coming to an answer and everybody will have a different answer or different approach or reaction to it.”[4] Paper Piece was hugely important in Patterson reconsidering his thoughts about musical composition and heralding his new approach to art making.

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Benjamin Patterson, Pond, 1962. Photo: Erin Smith

Pond is a performance that Patterson first executed in 1962, and, like Paper Piece, it invokes game-playing, chance operations, and musical components. The piece consists of an 8-foot grid taped directly on the floor, a score created by the artist, wind-up toy frogs, and eight participants that stand around the grid and make corresponding sounds as the frogs hop from one quadrant to the next. The performance escalates into a cacophony of sound as more and more frogs are released, evoking the “ribbeting” of an active frog pond. While Patterson was in Minneapolis in 2014, we executed Pond with eight students from the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), the youngest group to have ever performed the piece. Pond marks a moment early in Patterson’s practice when his performances began to incorporate objects (in this case, toy frogs), which functioned as both props and as catalysts to engage the audience in a playful action.

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Benjamin Patterson, Instruction No. 2, circa 1964, Walker Art Center Permanent Collection

Perhaps his simplest composition for action, Patterson’s Instruction No. 2 (1964) consists of a small plastic box containing a bar of soap in the shape and color of a lemon slice and a paper washcloth on which is stenciled, “Please wash your face.” With this work, Patterson transforms a habitual action that typically happens in the privacy of one’s home into a public performance. The work has been realized in various public settings, and yet Patterson noted the public’s resistance toward performing this activity: “In New York people were a bit hesitant one way or another, wondering whether or not they wanted to do this activity in public because it’s something that you normally do in the bathroom, in private.”[5] Instruction No. 2 asks participants to “concentrate one’s attention and focus on an everyday activity which is very important and taken for granted.”[6] The work marks out an everyday activity as an artistic and collective action, blending art and life, which is at the core of Fluxus. Life is art. And Patterson knew exactly how to help us experience differently, appreciate, and find humor in life.

Footnotes

[1] Crosby, Eric and Liz Glass. Interview with Benjamin Patterson. October 10, 2014.

[2] Patterson, Benjamin, “I’m Glad You Asked Me That Question” in Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us, ed. Valerie Cassel Oliver (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012).

[3] Crosby, Eric and Liz Glass, interview with Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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.

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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.

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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.

Second Thoughts: Fred Sandback and the Virtual Line

How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord. […]

Sandback ten

Pages from Fred Sandback, Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions, 1977, artist’s book, offset lithography, Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord.

Mining the Walker’s Rosemary Furtak Collection of artist’s books, I came across Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions (1977), a book-as-exhibition by Fred Sandback. The thin, pamphlet-like publication, devoid of text, comprises renderings of drawn-line constructions that emerge from a white grid atop a starkly contrasting black field. Sandback’s bold U- and L-shaped linear constructions appear three-dimensional within a two-dimensional plane. The artist achieved this by plotting forms onto matrices of 120-degree angle intersections of white gridded lines. This trompe l’oeil is facilitated by a process known as isometric projection, in which specific angles and intersections give “flat” surfaces the illusion of three-dimensionality. What appears to the eye as an object extending from the page is referred to as an “impossible object,” a term that can be readily applied to Sandback’s transformative drawings and minimal sculptures. The artist’s works transcend dimensions and, in the hindsight of our post-digital age, open his practice up to a discourse surrounding the virtual. The isometric process afforded Sandback the ability to work in an “imagined” space, positing the page as a virtual plane with indeterminate spatial possibilities for his linear constructions—literally blurring the lines between drawing, sculpture, and architecture.

This slippage between media and this expanded notion of virtual space transported me back to Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, a 2015 exhibition of the artist’s Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces) at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. The work consists of 64 drawings that together present all of the possible configurations of the associated yarn sculptures. The sculptural realizations of these drawings were presented in three adjacent, walled of spaces. The exhibition marked the US premiere of the work and its first realization since its 1975 debut in Munich. Each week, the three sculptures on view—each comprising three taught strands of yarn—were replaced and by the end of the run of the show 20 iterations of the work were constructed, the most ever shown in its history. Even though 44 configurations remained unseen, the level of variability achieved in this rotating display speaks to the virtual possibilities of Sandback’s minimal constructions, which challenge the viewer to actively engage in a dialogue with line and space.

Installation view of Fred Sandback, No. 1-64 from 64 Three-Part Pieces for München Kunstraum, 1975, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

 

Sandback view 2

Installation view of Fred Sandback, Untitled (64 Three-Part Pieces), 1975, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

Sandback’s practice upends conventions of artistic autonomy and authorship, as curators, registrars, and art handlers become what art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson describes as “art workers,” renegotiating the relationship between art and work as they labor the works to life in real time and space.[1] They do not simply place an object on the wall or on a pedestal, but put in motion an experiential mise-en-scène, in which sculpture unfolds in a relational space between bodies and the imagined “object.” Sandback noted that his works were meant to exist in a “pedestrian space,” and the yarn constructions, primarily placed along the ground or connecting the wall to the ground, invite viewers to enter a newly demarcated space. The taught fibers frame mundane spaces and create apertures onto a field of virtual possibilities.

Sandback view 3

Installation view of Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2015, Artwork from the Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive, Photograph © 2015 Alise O’Brien Photography

 

Sandback view 4

Fred Sandback, Untitled (Study for Kunstraum Munich), c. 1975, Felt tip pen, marker, and pencil on isometric paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches (21.6 x 27.9 cm), Estate of Fred Sandback, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

The 64 drawings displayed alongside the rotating yarn sculptures at the Pulitzer, which represented all possible yarn constructions, were accompanied by a series of preliminary sketches. These “flat” diagrams acted as instructions for the realization of these works within the gallery space. The lines of the drawings, which float within the two-dimensional field, beg to come off of the page and it becomes the role of curators, registrars, and art handlers to translate the image from one dimension to another. Sandback distills the sculptural object into information, returning the material process to a germinal “zero degree” state of absolute potential, in which lines on a page become platforms for reimagining the relationship between bodies and objects in space. Sandback’s drawings and sculptures exist in and out of time; in and out of space—the artist relinquishes his authority and provides an indeterminate platform for viewers to reimagine the temporal and spatial possibilities of what appears before their eyes. In this manner, Sandback implicates the proverbial “art worker” in a virtual negotiation with the line and its unstable dimensionality.

Although Sandback had no concrete association with the Fluxus movement, his Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions and his Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces), as well as his drawings and diagrammatic elastic cord sculpture certificates within the Walker’s collection function analogously to Fluxus scores and instructions. The lines, whether emerging from the grid or floating in space, activate viewers and prompt them to imagine construction in mental space or to actually physically realize the sculptural form within architectural space.

Untitled drawing Sand

Fred Sandback, Untitled, 1973, felt-tip pen, graphite on paper, Walker Art Center, Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, in honor of Kathy Halbreich, 2007, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

Held in the Walker’s collection, the 1973 Untitled drawing is a minimal work on paper in which the artist uses a felt-tip pen to draw five parallel lines within the center of a field of negative space. Like his preparatory drawings that are directly intended for sculptural realization, this work can be seen as a potential prompt for mental and physical constructions that transcend the two-dimensional page. Furthering this precarious boundary between score, instruction, and finished product are the certificates that accompanied the Walker’s collection of Sandback’s elastic cord sculptures upon acquisition.

pink sand

gray sand

yellow sand

Top to bottom: Fred Sandback, Pink Corner Piece; Gray Corner Piece; Yellow Corner Piece, 1970, elastic cord, donation of Virginia Dwan, 1986, © 2016 Fred Sandback Archive

The three 1970 elastic-cord corner constructions—which predate the artist’s turn to acrylic yarn—in the Walker’s collection (Pink Corner Piece, Gray Corner Piece, and Yellow Corner Piece) were acquired in the form of a certificate of authenticity, on which the artist has used a color pen—signifying the pigment of the cord to be used—to sketch out the measurements and spatial orientation for which the sourced elastic cord is to be taught and affixed to the corner of an exhibition space. The two-dimensional certificates bare an uncanny resemblance to their three-dimensional counterparts, further complicating any fixed dimensionality of Sandback’s sculptures or works on paper. The idea of a certificate or a score as a stand-in for an object-based work is emblematic of Fluxus scores and instructions (of which the Walker has significant holdings). Inserting Sandback’s works, “flat” and otherwise, into a Fluxus discourse allows for a recontextualization of his practice beyond the limiting categorizations of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Within the frame of the Fluxus score, Sandback’s oeuvre becomes open to indeterminate manifestations on the part of the viewer-turned-participant. Sandback’s works across media take on a virtual dimension, transforming the line, at once a static signal of order and structure, into a rhizomatic network in which museum staff and passerby take on the role of “art worker”—laboring with their minds or hands to determine and redetermine the dimensionality of the work.

Note

[1] See Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009).

The Peripheral, the Edges, the Off-Screen: A Conversation with James Richards

James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thornton’s Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richards’s own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well […]

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thorntons Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richardss own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well as in its first in-gallery presentation until the end of this year, within Less Than One. Rosebud (2013), centered on a series of censored images Richards came across in a Tokyo library, is also featured in the exhibition. The library bookscontemporary monographs on artists Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Man Rayhad been stopped at customs, where Japanese officials were instructed to use sandpaper to scratch away at any suggestive photographs before they could enter the country. Here, we talk about  the seduction of touch, the sculpt-ability of sound, and the perverse pleasures of looking.  

Victoria Sung: You gave a short interview about Radio at Night when it premiered at the Walker in 2015. Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap has also written about the piece and its sense of flow in relation to how the human body serves as a site of sensory integration and reception. I’m curious to hear you speak more about Rosebud, which the Walker acquired this past year. It seems to be a very tactile and textured piece, especially when I think about how your working process involves editing digital files on a laptop. Can you speak about this emphasis on tactility in the context of video?

James Richards: The premise of the video developed out of something utterly analogue and tactile—the sandpapering of a book page. It felt natural to then take this notion of touch or caress as a starting point and make a work that explores types of sensuality. It’s about the seductive idea of someone sitting in a customs office sandpapering away genitals, and the caressing or devotional feeling you can somewhat imagine that inducing. I guess it also touches on the idea of people queuing to rub the heel of a saint; the idea of accumulated touch as a sort of devotional thing. There’s also something in the way that the violence of the removal during the censoring process only seems to draw you in more or make you look harder, so to speak. When starting to make the work I knew I wanted to do something about different types of looking, of peering and scrutinizing.

6

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

More broadly speaking, I became interested in video through ideas like sensation—and the moving image as a source of sensation, like sculpture—rather than through an interest in cinema or television. I view the frame of the image not as a window into something but more like a surface across which sensations pass. I guess I was also interested in finding another way of looking at something familiar. I don’t think my work strictly adheres to this, but Stan Brakhage, the American Structuralist filmmaker, spoke of looking in a way that was more akin to how a baby looks—before cognition develops to the point of its being able to differentiate and name what it is seeing; prior to this, everything is just colors and shapes.[1] This idea of a precognitive relationship, of an uninterpreted, sensational kind of looking, is definitely one of the interests that run through my videos.

Sung: Brakhage made films without sound, for the most part, as he thought it would detract from the purity of the visual experience. Sound is a central, if not predominant, element in your work. Your videos are at once ethereal and physical, and I think much of this can be attributed to your ability to weight sound or give it a certain gravitas. Can you speak to the tangible, sculpt-able nature of sound in your work?

Richards: I like this idea of the unseen affective force you can have with sound. In the visual arts, of course, sound is read as secondary, in some ways, but it can be such a powerful tool. You can address someone directly with the human voice using words, language, or a song, but then you can also do things that are much more figurative—like the sound of something happening, which conjures something very visual in the mind’s eye, or how rhythms and punctuation can return viewers back to their own bodies. You can also do things that are more tonal and emotionally filter the space or filter the images that are in the space. I feel you can control a lot in very particular ways with sound, and in quite contrasting ways. Sound is something I’ve been working with for a long time now, longer than moving image, so perhaps on a very practical level it’s the medium I feel I can manipulate and control the most, the medium with which I can create the most.

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

In Rosebud there are points where the sound is literally the sound of the thing you’re seeing: you see a camera submerged in water and you can hear the sound of water on the microphone of the camera, so you are in and of that moment. At other times, that sound has been replaced by an extract of a song or a percussive element, and it completely alters how you read the image; the relationship between sound and image becomes much more imagined. It generates a third sort of space, or a third sensation, between the way you’re interpreting the sound and the image.

Sung: I know you began your artistic foray with sound—the sequencing, synthesizing, and sampling of sound—and I wonder if you find yourself returning more and more to working with solely sound.

James Richards, Crumb Mahogany 1 (2016); 6-channel digital audio, computer system; 15 minute loop. Installation view, Crumb Mahogany, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, February 26 – April 3, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: Definitely. The last work I made, presented at Bergen Kunsthall in Norway (Crumb Mahogany, co-commissioned by Bergen Kunsthall, ICA London, and Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover; traveling through 2016) was all about trying to spread and smear the elements of a single video across a number of rooms. In some spaces we presented configurations of speakers playing audio compositions, and other rooms had video components; rather than synchronizing the two by showing a video with two speakers on either side, for example, things were allowed to just bleed between the rooms. I find myself making further moves from the cinematic or televisual idea of synching sound and image and letting them be in discrete spaces, to convene accidentally or through people walking between them.

Sung: In hearing you talk about sound and how it possesses the potential for a certain direct or immediate address, and the moments when the sound you’re hearing might not match up to the image in front of you, I’m struck by the immersive soundtrack in Radio at Night in relation to a sense of visual distanciation. There seem to be many distancing mechanisms—you frequently use a black frame to border an image, or when you show an eye it’s not just a naked eye but an eye as seen through a handheld lens as seen through a viewfinder. Can you talk about this possible tension you’re playing with?

James Richards, Radio at Night (2015); still from digital video with sound; 8 minutes 10 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: Perhaps all of these quite graphic, distancing pictorial devices create space that the sound is then occupying, because sound always is in a way immersive; maybe there is something in that tension, a kind of moving around and in between those two, the pushes and pulls between sound and image. Then conversely it’s almost like the visual emphasis on shifts in aspect ratio or the resolution of an image—or in Rosebud the scratched image—actually encourages people to carry out a kind of intense viewing. It’s as if the distancing is producing almost a strange scrutiny of sorts, and then sound steps in to somehow modify that looking.

Sung: The self-referential nature of video as a durational, time-based medium is particularly captivating in Rosebud. I recently read an essay about how art invites a particular way of looking, a slow looking, which in turn may encourage patience at a time when we are accustomed to receiving visual information immediately. Can you tease out the durational aspect of your work here?

James Richards, Rosebud (2013); still from digital video with sound; 12 minutes 57 seconds. Image courtesy the artist and Cabinet London / Rodeo London

Richards: I think that’s definitely one of the pleasures of Rosebud. Even in the filming, before I knew I would make a piece with the footage, I came across these books in a Tokyo library on the last day or two of a residency and thought I’d just go and film as many of them as I could before I left. For some reason I chose to film them rather than to scan them, and I think it was totally about the perverse pleasure of introducing a time element to a still image. It speaks to a kind of gorging, or ways a camera takes something in. I like the idea of the wide open aperture and the image just flowing in. With the underwater scenes I wasn’t really looking through the viewfinder but was using the camera as a sort of vessel, as an extension of my hand that could be submerged into liquids.

Then there are shots of iconic but also shocking images of Robert Mapplethorpe or Wolfgang Tillmans in S&M scenes that have been sandpapered away at in a strange, impotent “desexualizing” gesture. But at the same time you can hear birds squawking outside, and the rustling of the hushed library where these images now reside, and all of this has a sense of “meanwhile” or “despite this.” I guess that’s something that happens with duration—I’m showing you this with an intensity, but at the same time something utterly unrelated is left in and seemingly happening. This concentrated, over-held attention on the one hand, and a shifting, wandering attention on the other—and moving between those two—is probably where a lot of the drama in the piece occurs. I guess it’s also one of the logics in the work that because the “center” or focus of the photograph has been removed, I end up working so much to accent or emphasize the peripheral, the edges, the off-screen.

Less Than One is on view at the Walker from April 7 to December 31, 2016.

Footnote

[1] Known for his experimental, non-narrative films, Stan Brakhage viewed cinema as a way to liberate the act of looking. In “Metaphors On Vision” (first published in the journal Film Culture in 1963), he wrote: “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?”

A Narrative for the Body: Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore

Artist Shahryar Nashat recently made Present Sore (2016), a composite portrait of the 21st-century body mediated by substances both organic and fabricated. In this new interview, Walker Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich ask Nashat what drives his work—the politics of the body, its digital and physical augmentations, and its obsolescence. Present Sore is presented on the […]

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, video, 9 minutes. A Walker Moving Image Commission

Artist Shahryar Nashat recently made Present Sore (2016), a composite portrait of the 21st-century body mediated by substances both organic and fabricated. In this new interview, Walker Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich ask Nashat what drives his work—the politics of the body, its digital and physical augmentations, and its obsolescence.

Present Sore is presented on the Walker Channel from April 8 through May 31, 2016, as part of the Walker’s Moving Image Commissions. It is also featured in the Portikus exhibition Model Malady (April 22–June 19, 2016).

Fabian Schöneich: Your most recent video, Present Sore, streams online via the Walker Channel and is installed in your gallery exhibition at Portikus. The format of this work is vertical: 9:16 instead of 16:9. It reminds me of the way people shoot video on their phone. Can you tell us what led to your decision of rotating your camera?

Shahyrar Nashat: It’s true—smartphones have generalized the use of vertical framing. When I came to Portikus for an initial site visit and saw the gallery, I immediately saw how a 16:9 format video would be crushed by the height of the space. On top of that, I had always struggled with the horizontal format of 16:9 because you can never fill the frame when you want to capture a limb vertically. Present Sore is an oblique high-definition figure study of a composite body. The video’s upward progression (from feet to head) necessitated a vertical format.

Schöneich: Your work often questions and highlights the homogeneity between object and body. Abstract but clean objects are representational of the body, or else the body is representational for the object or the sculpture. In Present Sore, we see the human body not as a whole, only in detail—like a close-up of the knee or the hand.

Isla Leaver-Yap: Totally. Present Sore’s focus on detail fragments the subject, showing the mechanical moving “parts” of the body and isolating their function as tools. This fragmentation implicates a wider cultural landscape that has preferences for certain types of bodies, pointing as well to an economic landscape that obfuscates the parts of labor—both human and inhuman. Shahryar, I was wondering if you could speak to this “composite” quality you referred to earlier, and talk about the bodies, types, and genders you choose as your subjects?

Nashat: Mainstream cultural representation of the human body privileges a homogeneous and wholesome body. I have always searched to represent bodies that sit outside those traditional ideals. The bodies I’m interested in might have diverse motor functions, cosmetic interventions, and applications. Like the injured elbow in Hustle in Hand (2014, video, 19 minutes). That’s why I like wounds or prosthetics. They signal injury and, therefore, anomaly. Limbs are similarly interesting. Framed away from the rest of the body, they question it, while also allowing some psychological distance from the notion of persona. For me, this is where you open the door for desire and projection.

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014

Shahryar Nashat, Hustle in Hand, 2014, HD video, 10 minutes
Courtesy Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin.

Leaver-Yap: What do you mean by “desire” and “projection”? Both terms seem particularly resonant with how your work intersects with ideas of queerness. Your work blurs lines between fetish and tool and often trades in promiscuous formal relations, by which I mean things that resemble or “stand in” for that which they represent but also complicate that representation: a vertical format as a body, a Paul Thek artwork of a rotting piece of flesh for a psychic human wound, or an artificial prosthesis as a 21st-century ideal tool for the body.

Nashat: I think art has always operated with the mechanics of desire and projection. Not only as an incentive for an artist to make work but the way the work is appreciated and consumed by the audience. The “stand-in” is a powerful strategy because it works through deception, which is another powerful ingredient. It all sounds very theoretical, but what I guess I am trying to say is that the frustration of meaning is central to any work because it creates desire. The tools I use in my work—framing, editing, a geometric object next to the close-up of a wound—participate in that enterprise.

Schöneich: Does imperfection define desire for you?

Nashat: “Perfect” versus “imperfect” sounds like “good” versus “bad.” I don’t think it’s about morals. When I watch a movie or TV show, for example, the interesting characters are not necessarily the ones that have personality flaws or act inconsistently. I don’t care whether they’re good or bad people. But I do like it when there is a perversion in them, some kind of inconsistency. Incoherency creates a compelling and complex character. That’s desire.

Schöneich: How important is gesture in this work? I’m thinking especially of the sections of Present Sore where a lip is pulled or an ear is touched or plugged.

Nashat: Capturing a body that is inanimate or frozen in action made sense in the 1990s when photography was concerned with creating tableaux vivants. But for me, the body in action is more interesting because it’s not just “on display” for the camera to get the best shot. It competes with the camera and forces it to find different strategies. It’s less mannered than a pose perhaps, and the formal and aesthetic gesture is not coming from what you look at but the way you look at it. When you invest the body with actions and gestures, you write a narrative for the body. You give it agency. I must say, though, that there are very active ways for the body to be passive—like a smoker or a sleeper, which are equally powerful images.

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016. Walker Moving Image Commission

Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016, video. A Walker Moving Image Commission

Schöneich: How did you film Present Sore? Tell us about the overlayering of images throughout the video.

Nashat: The layering was an accident that I ended up keeping. I have been relying on software bugs and my own technical mistakes a lot lately.

Leaver-Yap: Your work is so carefully choreographed and edited that it’s really interesting to hear about the importance of accident within your practice. Accident seems to me to be such a human quality, while being attentive to accident is something very digital—a quality of being watched or surveilled. I was struck by something Moyra Davey said to me about shooting video last year. Moyra shoots mostly analogue photographs, and now she shoots digital video. She told me she liked how “video hangs onto accident” in a way that is particular to the form. The digital captures physical vulnerabilities as much as it can augment or erase those very qualities in post-production. I was wondering if you could speak to the notion of error, mistake, and accident in your work a bit more?

Nashat: In Hustle in Hand, my editing program was interrupting the playback of my video. One frame from a completely different section of the video would intrude into the clips. I ended up keeping this glitch because it breaks the linear narrative of the timeline—it’s like a preview of the footage that is yet to come. In Present Sore, meanwhile, I brought the wrong resolution into the project, but then I decided to keep it as it complicates the view of the body. Capturing body limbs is such an ordinary image to do. You need these kinds of tricks to ramp up attention. Technological accidents are what make the work more vulnerable. If you keep them, you can of course normalize them, but I find it useful for them to remain as anomalies that serve the work.

Shahryar Nashat, Factor Green, installation view, 54th International Venice Biennial, 2011. Courtesy of Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin. Photo: Gaëtan Malaparte

Shahryar Nashat, Factor Green, installation view, 54th International Venice Biennial, 2011
Courtesy Rodeo, London; Silberkuppe, Berlin. Photo: Gaëtan Malaparte.

Schöneich: Already in early works, like in Factor Green (2011), or in your exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, you investigated the meaning and the visual presence of the pedestal or plinth itself. At Portikus and the forthcoming Walker exhibition Question the Wall Itself, you present a series of sculptures—pedestal blocks—resting on chairs that you say are designed for them to “relax.”

Nashat: Yes, the pedestal is to the artwork what the foot is to the body. It provides the support that allows the artwork to stand and be on display. It’s like a pair of crutches. Present Sore toys with the fact that high-definition imagery being now at the service of “supporting” the body. It makes the pedestal obsolete. Chômage technique is a French term used when, say, a factory lays off its workers but maintains their salary. In a world of bodies shown in pixels, pedestals are a kind of “chômage technique”—they have no one to support anymore. In my installation, they can retire and enjoy the viewing of the bodies they once would have supported. The pedestal has always been an underdog, or in the service of something else. But in this configuration it as if it’s won the lottery and is off to retire in Florida.

Present Sore is a commission by the Walker Art Center with major support from the Bentson Foundation, and Portikus, Frankfurt/Main.

Meredith Monk: 16 Millimeter Earrings and the Artist’s Body

At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained […]

Installation view of one of the Meredith Monk galleries in the exhibition <em>Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones </em>, featuring elements from <em>16 Millimeter Earrings </em>(1966/1998)

Elements from 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966/1998), as installed in the 1998 Walker 1998 exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones

At once a choreographer, composer, actress, singer, and director, Meredith Monk is known for a body of work that is often considered unclassifiable. Since the 1960s, her practice has spanned across disciplines of dance, theater, visual arts, and film, and has included solo as well as ensemble pieces. Monk’s self-fashioned degree in “Interdisciplinary Performance,” obtained from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, remains the best definition of her work, as the artist often combines multiple performative elements in individual pieces. Her approach results in works that cannot be singularly defined as dance, theater, concert, or film works, but are instead a unique synthesis of artistic disciplines, most broadly described as simply “performance art.”

One of Monk’s earliest pieces is 16 Millimeter Earrings, created in 1966 and originally staged at the Judson Church in New York. The performance began with Monk seated facing away from her audience while playing the guitar and singing, then went on to combine vocal recordings, theatrical acting, and film projections, and finally ended with the burning of an effigy meant to represent the artist herself. 16 Millimeter Earrings incorporated physical props, such as a slinky and red crepe paper streamers, as well as less tangible components. Audible during the performance were partial recordings of the traditional English folk song “Greensleeves” as well as passages from The Function of the Orgasm, written by the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, which argues for sexual liberation as a panacea for all ills, both physical and psychological. Reflecting on the work in 2010, Monk commented: “With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally… It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all… It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.”

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, performance

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Nam June Paik: Television Has Attacked Us for a Lifetime

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video […]

Nam June Paik, 'TV Cello' (1971), video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente

Nam June Paik, TV Cello, 1971, video tubes, TV chassis, plexiglass boxes, electronics, wiring, wood base, fan, stool, photograph. © Estate of Nam June Paik. Courtesy Walker Art Cente

While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video art,” and the point at which the television became both the subject and object of an artwork. Originally titled Symphony for 20 Rooms, Paik’s exhibition was considered a total environment, drawing on the spirit of Surrealism (a severed ox head greeted visitors in the first room, while in a bathroom a human mannequin lay submerged in a tub) and Fluxus (via treated instruments, such as “prepared pianos,” adapted by wedging objects between their strings). The exhibition also brought together an installation of 13 television sets, arranged either directly on the floor or stacked on top of one another. Each transmitted distorted live signals—some as stripes or wavy lines, others collaged so as to simultaneously show overlaid moving images.

Nam June Paik, 'Kuba-TV' (1963) seen as part of Exposition of Music – Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, Kuba-TV, 1963, seen as part of Exposition of Music—Electronic Television. © Nam June Paik

A number of TV sets on view required activation by the viewer. One television was connected to a microphone and transmitted a signal affected by the one’s voice. Another TV was attached to a pedal and would similarly show a distorted image if handled by an audience member. “Television has attacked us for a lifetime, now we fight back,” declared Paik, who conceived of the television as an object to be exploited, tinkered with, and ultimately humanized. As in his later works, such as TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV Cello (1971), Paik subverted the notion of the TV as a determined instrument of power. Instead, under his influence, television sets and the televisual became instruments for performance and play, either by invited performers, such as Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) or the active, participating viewer.

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage (1962), Offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist, Courtesy Walker Art Center

Wolf Vostell, Dé-collage, 1962, offset lithograph on paper, Copyright retained by the artist; courtesy Walker Art Center

A few months after Paik’s exhibition, German artist Wolf Vostell (1932–1998) opened Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage1 at Smolin Gallery in New York. Vostell presented a number of TVs placed on office furniture, each set to receive a slightly different, modified signal. Upon entering the exhibition, audience members received bottles of liquid, which they were encouraged to smear on wall-mounted LIFE magazine covers. For Vostell, the exhibition was a place of activity, where one could “participate in the creation of Décollage at the opening […] to eat art and to make art by eating.”2 Vostell had begun to orient his practice around the term “dé-collage” in 1954, upon spotting the word used in a newspaper to refer to an airplane crash. For the artist, “dé-collage” meant the inverse of collage—the erosion and destruction of an existing image, as opposed its formation through cumulative addition of multiple elements. Vostell applied the term to his engagement with televisions, which he incorporated into his work as early as 1958 in Theater in the Streets, a happening staged in Parisian public spaces. Throughout his practice, Vostell posited on the very materiality of the TV set, embedding these in concrete, arranging motorized TVs on broken glass, and “dé-collaging” live television signals.

Photograph of Wolf Vostell's 'TV Burying' (1963), © Peter Moore

Photograph of Wolf Vostell’s TV Burying, 1963, © Peter Moore

While both Paik and Vostell employed the television as an object for performance, Vostell’s happenings emphasized destruction, a theme he believed it was his duty to reflect upon as an artist. Staged contemporaneously to his exhibition at Smolin Gallery, TV Burying was an event Vostell organized as part of the Yam Festival in New Jersey, which included actions by artists Dick Higgins (1938–1998), Allan Kaprow (1927–2006), and La Monte Young (b. 1935). In Vostell’s performance, televisions broadcasting live footage were attacked with custard pies, wrapped in barbed wire, and then carried in procession and buried in the ground. Part flagellation ritual, part crucifixion, TV Burying ceremoniously sacrificed the TV set before an audience.

Cover of Marshall McLuhan's first edition of 'Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man' (1964) published by McGraw-Hill

Cover of Marshall McLuhan’s first edition of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, published by McGraw-Hill

Paik and Vostell developed their 1963 exhibitions while Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) would have been writing and editing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published only a year later in 1964. The book includes McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message,” whereby “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”3 Paik and Vostell were among the first artists to critically engage with the television as an everyday object, stripping away its connotations as a prized possession or marker of class distinction. Slathered with concrete, upturned, or placed casually on the floor, their TVs are ordinary, part of everyday life. By turning televisions into playful instruments and modifying their signals, Paik and Vostell subverted the notion of the TV as a conduit for the passive reception of ideology. In their hands, televisions were controlled by human will and manipulated by the body. They rendered the viewer a participant and the television as subject to anyone’s influence, a medium for play and experimentation.

Notes

1 McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 9

2 Also referred to as TV Trouble or 6 TV Dé-coll/age in existing literature.

3 As can be seen on the exhibition preview card.

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