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2016: The Year According to William E. Jones

2016 was a big year for William E. Jones: the Ohio-born, Los Angeles–based artist, filmmaker, and writer published a new book, True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell, appeared in the Walker-organized exhibition Ordinary Pictures, and began a new film, based on his visits to the ruins of the home of Greek art collector Alexander Iolas.  […]

William E. Jones

2016 was a big year for William E. Jones: the Ohio-born, Los Angeles–based artist, filmmaker, and writer published a new book, True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell, appeared in the Walker-organized exhibition Ordinary Pictures, and began a new film, based on his visits to the ruins of the home of Greek art collector Alexander Iolas. 

A prolific artist, he has made two feature-length experimental films, Massillon (1991) and Finished (1997), the documentary Is It Really So Strange? (2004), videos including The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), and many installations. His work has been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern (2005), Anthology Film Archives (2010), Austrian Film Museum, and Oberhausen Short Film Festival (both 2011). His group exhibitions include the 1993 and 2008 Whitney Biennials, the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009), and Untitled (Death by Gun) at the 12th Istanbul Biennial (2011). His books include Is It Really So Strange? (2006), Tearoom (2008),“Killed”: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration (2010), Halsted Plays Himself (2011), Imitation of Christ (2013), and Between Artists: Thom Andersen and William E. Jones (2013).

Here, as part of 2016: The Year According to                             , Jones shares his top cultural encounters of the year, in alphabetical order.

1.

Roberto Arlt, The Seven Madmen

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Written in Argentina on the brink of economic depression and military dictatorship, The Seven Madmen reads like an attempt to rewrite a book by Dostoevsky as a pulp novel, which is indeed what it might have been. Roberto Arlt (1900–1942), an autodidact raised by immigrants in the slums of Buenos Aires, anticipated Theater of the Absurd in his dialogue and David Lynch’s Eraserhead in his mise-en-scène. His characters, like a hefty chunk of the American electorate, are propelled by acute class resentments and a haywire libidinal energy. Arlt supported himself mainly as a journalist and wrote volumes of essays called aguafuertes (etchings) about political and cultural life in South America and the Spanish Republic. Arlt (unlike Jorge Luis Borges, the Anglophile) knew no English, and has received little attention outside of Argentina. As for the English-speaking world, the only literary equivalent to Arlt I can imagine would be the bastard spawn of Jim Thompson and George Orwell. Two of Arlt’s novels, all of his plays, the majority of his short stories, and virtually all of the aguafuertes have yet to be translated into English. In response to this lack, Arlt himself would probably have said, “Get to work, you bums!”

2.

Cleveland Museum of Art

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The Cleveland Museum of Art undertook a large-scale renovation in time for its centennial this year. The vast, airy atrium by Rafael Viñoly, linking the original 1916 Beaux Arts–style building to the 1971 Marcel Breuer addition, is a complete success—an inviting, climate-controlled space for people to gather and relax at any time of year. The great permanent collection galleries lie beyond the atrium, up the escalators. There is no overcrowding, no hard sell, no condescension, and best of all, no admission fee to this museum that remains truly devoted to art and welcoming to the public.

3.

Countertenors at the Los Angeles Opera

G. Thomas Allen, John Holiday, and Darryl Taylor in Dido and Aeneas. Photo: LA Opera

G. Thomas Allen, John Holiday, and Darryl Taylor in Dido and Aeneas. Photo: LA Opera

This year’s triumphant Akhnaten by Philip Glass starred countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, completely nude, covered in brocades, as a deity, and finally, as a museum exhibit. This production proved that Los Angeles Opera can make a serious commitment to modern music. Akhnaten reached a visual and musical climax with the hymn that ends the second act, sounding to me like a vaguely Baroque version of the song “Dirt” by Iggy Pop and the Stooges.

Another wonderful clash of the Baroque and modern came in 2014’s production of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, paired with Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and given a minimalist staging by Barrie Kosky. I fantasize that John Holiday, my favorite countertenor, will return to Los Angeles to perform in another opera some day soon. He combined menace and sex appeal as the Sorceress who sings the haunting aria “Wayward Sisters” then throws a boot into the orchestra pit in a fit of pique. Dido and Aeneas’s witches made history that evening: three African American countertenors had never shared an opera stage before.

4.

Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, Into the Inferno

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I confess to having been a Werner Herzog skeptic for decades; I never cared much for his fiction films. He has become a great documentary filmmaker in his old age. (Perhaps if Mick Jagger had made a brilliant success of Fitzcarraldo, things would have turned out differently, but I for one am glad they did not.) Made in collaboration with Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, Into the Inferno is filled with sublime and bizarre moments. In historical footage, French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft seem to walk right into streams of molten lava. Later, we see the pyroclastic flow that killed them instantly. Scenes in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea do not come across as piteous or comedic, as they often do in the western media. Herzog shoots students singing patriotic songs at the rim of the dormant volcano Mount Paektu (claimed by the DPRK as the birthplace of Kim Il-sung) and says that such behavior would be unimaginable on a California university campus. All active volcanoes are connected to some kind of worship, he asserts, because it is profoundly humbling to realize that the ground beneath our feet is not solid but constantly shifting. For humans living near volcanoes, this knowledge is unavoidable. The film also contains valuable advice: never turn your back on an active volcano; if lava is ejected into the air, keep your eye on its trajectory and calmly step out of the way.

5.

Katya

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Bryan McCook, aka Katya Zamolodchikova, has been my favorite queen of all from RuPaul’s Drag Race. An alumna of Massachusetts College of Art, she’s smart—speaking fluent Russian, a language she learned just for fun—but without so much as a whiff of art school attitude. She is forthcoming about her past as a full-time drug addict and part-time prostitute, and this vulnerability made her an overwhelming audience favorite. With characteristic frankness, Katya also describes many of her reality television colleagues as sociopaths. By her own admission, she was “like a bag of nerves and sadness” on RPDR. This phrase comes from a crucial Katya ur-text, her Hey Qween! interview, by far the longest one that Jonny McGovern, the host of this YouTube program, has ever done. It is a remarkable stream of non sequiturs, prompting co-host Lady Red Couture to ask repeatedly, “What is going on?” During the interview (which took place in April), Katya announced to the audible disgust of those in the studio, “If I was the First Lady, if I was Melania Trump… my platform would be to reverse the War on Drugs… Legalize them already. All of them. Portugal did it, and they’re doing fine.” She summed up her position with the most sensible comment of the evening, “Drug abuse is a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue.” I’m now convinced that the “dirtbag with a tumbleweed on his head,” as she called the future president, married the wrong Slavic supermodel—Katya Zamolodchikova for First Lady.

6.

Jarett Kobek, I Hate the Internet

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How can I not love the first self-published book reviewed by the New York Times? Jarett Kobek is a polemicist of fearsome power because he knows the tech beast from within, and let’s face it, almost every human who is “online” has come to hate this fetid swamp, this echo chamber, this destroyer of privacy and self-esteem called the Internet. In a recent issue of The Spectator, a plagiarist of Jonathan Lethem’s cover blurb asked if the author of I Hate the Internet is the “Houellebecq of San Francisco,” not acknowledging that Kobek, who is the son of a Turkish immigrant, lives in Los Angeles and writes books that have little in common with Michel Houellebecq’s fatuously pornographic descriptions of la France profonde ineffectually fighting off the Islamic hordes. Now in its third printing with a cover ready for the shelves of Hot Topic, I Hate the Internet offers us a whole heap of bad writing attacking the rich and powerful of the “knowledge economy,” a deviously Orwellian term for the latest capitalist scams. This is literature an American can be proud of, especially if Kobek winds up on the next president’s list of bad guys by virtue of his dad’s religion.

7.

Mark Mothersbaugh

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Henry Shadduck, Jocko Homo Heavenbound, 1924

Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, local boy made good, had a giant retrospective shared by two Ohio museums this year. Akron Art Museum exhibited Mothersbaugh’s visual art, while MOCA Cleveland exhibited music-related material, including rarities from the archive such as the long out-of-print little red book, My Struggle (1978), a rambling text accompanied by tabloid-derived collages, and the original East German-manufactured mask that inspired the character of Booji Boy, whose blonde and orange plastic features bear a resemblance to the American president-elect of 2016. According to the True Devo Bio by Gerald Casale (coauthor of the Devo gesamtkunstwerk), “The band developed from a long line of brain-eating apes, some of which settled in northeastern Ohio around Akron, where [Devo] eventually appeared.” The doctrine of de-evolution seems as relevant now as it was when the band invented it—or appropriated it from Bertram Henry Shadduck’s 1924 tract, Jocko Homo Heavenbound, which they found in a thrift store as undergraduates at Kent State University during the early 1970s. This astonishing relic was also on display in Myopia.

8.

Zanele Muholi, Personae

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Having missed Zanele Muholi’s prize-winning US debut at the Carnegie International in 2013, I caught up with this exhibition at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which combined two bodies of work: Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi’s staged self-portraits, and Faces and Phases, her portraits of South African lesbians. The women in the latter photographs face constant danger in a country where there is no law specifically proscribing hate crimes, and where so-called “corrective rapes” occur, often converting women to HIV-positive status but never converting them to heterosexuality. Muholi’s lush black-and-white prints emphasize the defiance and sartorial flair of the portrait subjects. Muholi herself has some of the same attitude, as she tries out costumes, headdresses, and even a Louis XIV fright wig in hotel rooms where she stays while traveling the world for her exhibitions. An activist as well as an artist, Muholi has been attacked by politicians as “immoral,” robbed, and harassed at home while achieving art stardom abroad.

9.

Deborah Stratman, The Illinois Parables

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“Parable” suggests a biblical story, an interesting word to apply to the state of Governor Blagojevich and Speaker of the House Hastert, as well as murderers John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck. Deborah Stratman takes up other, less lurid subjects in her film The Illinois Parables: the power of the ancient Cahokia Mounds, the mass deportation of Native Americans along the Trail of Tears, the persecution of Mormons forced to flee to Utah, the establishment of a utopian socialist community by the Icarians, and, within living memory, the murder by law enforcement officers of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. Stratman directed, shot, and edited The Illinois Parables, but it is her sound design that contributes to the film’s most powerful moment, a long shot of Gorham and Crossville from the air after these towns were devastated by a 1925 storm, accompanied by the song “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by the Lunenberg Travelers mixed with radio warnings of an immanent tornado.

10.

Villa Iolas in ruins

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In 1982, I visited legendary art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas (1907–1987) at his home in Greece. In May of this year, I returned to the suburbs of Athens to find the place where Iolas had lived and to see what was left behind after art thieves and vandals invaded the house in the wake of Iolas’s death. I was overwhelmed and became physically ill at the first sight of what had once been a showplace of art. I returned a second time during my trip and photographed this modern ruin. These images, along with many others, form the basis of a new film, Fall into Ruin, forthcoming in 2017.

2016: The Year According to De Nichols

In 2014, De Andrea Nichols was part of the team that created Mirror Casket, an artwork that was ceremonially carried from the site of Michael Brown’s killing to the Ferguson police department, its mirrors challenging those who saw it “to look within and see their reflections as both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and […]

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De Nichols. Photo: Lindy Drew

In 2014, De Andrea Nichols was part of the team that created Mirror Casket, an artwork that was ceremonially carried from the site of Michael Brown’s killing to the Ferguson police department, its mirrors challenging those who saw it “to look within and see their reflections as both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and aggressor.” This year—as the Mirror Casket was brought into the collection of the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American culture—Nichols again was involved in mirroring. As she outlines below, she and two other black staffers wrote a letter, speaking back to management at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis about a controversial exhibition by Kelley Walker that many in St. Louis believed caused pain in the African American community. Among the show’s works were photos of black women smeared with toothpaste and images from the Civil Rights movement silkscreened using chocolate. Given St. Louis’s role as a “central location for the contemporary civil rights movement in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson,” the trio wrote to their bosses, “the work triggers a retraumatization of racial and regional pain.”

A multidisciplinary designer and civic leader, Nichols is a cofounder and director of Civic Creatives, a social design organization that curates interactive experiences that help community members and civic organizations connect and resolve critical social challenges. Here, we welcome her reflections on a pivotal year, for her and the world, as part of series 2016: The Year According to                              .

1.

Mirror Casket 

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The Smithsonian opened the National Museum of African American History & Culture this year. As the nineteenth Smithsonian Institution and the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture, NMAAHC is one of the most dynamic cultural entities that came into existence this year. My team and I were honored to have work, the Mirror Casket, added to its collection this year. Read Smithsonian Magazine’s feature on this and other featured works.

 

2.

Impact Through Art

2016 St. Louis Visionary Awards ceremony and reception presented by The Arts and Education Council at The Sun Theater in St. Louis, Missouri on April 25, 2016.

A significant moment in my personal life includes earning the St. Louis Visionary Award for community impact through art. The Visionaries is an unique component of St. Louis culture as it is dedicated to celebrating the contributions of women who help shape culture.

 

3.

Creative Power and Policy

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2016 was flooded with new and bold manifestations of artists leveraging creative power to influence policy. This has ranged from the creation of the For Freedoms artist-run super PAC to a rise in artists securing political office, and even an expansion of the US Department of Art and Culture (USDAC) with the launch of Culture/Shift and the “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform.”

 

4.

Call for Change

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The controversy surrounding the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and its Direct Drive exhibition by Kelley Walker marks one of the hardest, yet awakening moments in my life and for the contemporary art world this year. During this time, I served as the Museum’s community engagement manager as well as a leader within the activist, racial justice, and artist communities. Two days prior to the exhibition’s opening, I was appointed to the board of directors of Forward through Ferguson—the racial equity organization that emerged from the Ferguson Commission following the 2014 social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Such conflict led me (and fellow black administrative staff) to write an open letter to museum directors and act in solidarity with community outcry and calls for accountability and change. The racial tensions and insensitivities have since catalyzed CAM and other art institutions nationwide to confront internal choices, curatorial and programmatic decisions, and structural dynamics that yield implicit racial bias and harm upon communities of color and other historically marginalized groups. In 2017, I expect to see and contribute to sustained, deepened, and increased engagement with museums regarding these critical issues.

 

5.

Artists Respond to Trump

Though many of us share Yoko Ono’s sentiments about Donald Trump, artists have continued to rise up in counteraction to the divisiveness of the presidential election. The post-election development of efforts like the #ArtActionCall series and index will serve as resources to help artists align their creative works and efforts nationally.  

6.

Black Arts Renaissance

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2016 has been a year overwhelmed with “Black Girl Magic,” and a black arts renaissance came alive across visual arts, film, television, music, and digital media. My top highlights include:

a. Art: Mark Bradford is announced as the representative for the United States at the Venice Biennale’s 57th International Art Exhibition.

b. Film & Documentary: Whose Streets?, 13th, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story  

c. TV: Insecure, Queen Sugar, Atlanta, Underground, Luke Cage, The Get Down

d. Literature: Citizen (though published in 2014)

e. Music: Chance the Rapper and Donald Glover proved that there is place in hip hop for “black boy joy,” while the groundbreaking returns of Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, and Solange enlightened the masses to untapped possibilities and perceptions of our spaces in society.

f. Digital Media: Black creators master the viral nature of digital media platforms like Youtube, Instagram, and Snapchat.

 

6.

Women ruled Summer Olympics 

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For the first time in history we witnessed women conquer the Olympic games in Rio. Of the 121 medals won by the US, women earned 61 (and 27 of the 46 gold medals). From The Final Five US women’s gymnastics team to Ibtihaj Muhammad as the first US athlete to compete in her hijab, women of the Olympics gave Americans a spark of hope, resolve, unity, and fire in the midst of a year of great political frustration and division.

 

7.

#NoDAPL

Photo: Indigenous Rising Media

A significant movement that arose this year has been the on-going fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline led by Native Americans in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Since April, this effort has aligned and united cultural activists, climate advocates, and tribes nationwide to uphold the protection of water, land, and religious/spiritual sites sacred to indigenous people of the US. With the December 4 presidential announcement to reroute Dakota Access pipelines away from native land, significant progress has been made as activists have endured state-sanctioned violence and intimidation throughout #NoDAPL efforts. However, 2017 threatens to have these successes be short-lived once the new presidential administration takes office. This is an intersectional justice battle that is sure to grow in coming months.

 

8.

2016 killed everything that was great, even the word, “great.”

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Nearly weekly, timelines and newsfeeds were filled with lamentations like “not another one,” as we witness increased mass shootings, police brutality, and hate crimes. In addition, we lost a massive amount of beloved celebrities and public figures, including: Muhammad Ali, Prince, Vanity, David Bowie, Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Ron Glass, Florence Henderson, Gwen Ifill, Tommy Strong, Arnold Palmer, Chyna, Jose Fernandez, Gene Wilder, Elie Wiesel, Pat Summitt, Bernie Worrell, Christina Grimmie, and Billy Paul.

 

10.

Beyoncé

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

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

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Chris Larson, still from Land Speed Record, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artist Op-Eds Counterpoint: A Response to “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign”

As a forum for spirited discourse, the Walker Art Center’s Artist Op-Eds series addresses current, and at times contentious, issues through the voices of today’s artists. To facilitate conversation, we welcome responses from parties involved with these issues. Here, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, responds to Naeem Mohaiemen’s December 7, 2016 opinion […]

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As a forum for spirited discourse, the Walker Art Center’s Artist Op-Eds series addresses current, and at times contentious, issues through the voices of today’s artists. To facilitate conversation, we welcome responses from parties involved with these issues. Here, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, responds to Naeem Mohaiemen’s December 7, 2016 opinion piece, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign,” which addresses, in part, plans for the Guggenheim’s museum in Abu Dhabi. 

“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign” misrepresents the Guggenheim Foundation’s engagement on the issue of workers’ welfare related to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and is an exercise in self-congratulation and manufactured history.

Since we began the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project in 2007 safeguarding the welfare of the workers who will build the future museum has been a top priority and a focus of considerable engagement with our partners in the UAE—most specifically the Tourism Development & Investment Company. During that time, TDIC has advanced measurable progress on a number of fronts, including the development of its Employment Practices Policy (EPP), which outlines workers’ welfare requirements on its projects, including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, for which construction is not yet underway. The EPP, which was endorsed by the Guggenheim and to which we contributed recommendations for its most recent revision in 2015, has been noted by Human Rights Watch as providing “more labor protections than anywhere else in the Gulf.” Annual independent monitoring reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers continue to show improvements among those who are working under the EPP on current TDIC projects on Saadiyat Island, including workers’ accommodations, passport retention, and access to medical insurance. At the same time, the government of Abu Dhabi has taken additional measures to strengthen protections for workers at the national level, including decrees enacted earlier this year that standardize contract terms and increase flexibility for workers to move between employers.

Despite this progress, the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) has pursued a campaign of direct action against the Guggenheim since 2010 in the media and in our museums in New York and Venice. For six years Guggenheim senior leadership engaged in good faith with GLC to seek common ground on an issue of shared importance. During the course of that engagement GLC repeatedly shifted its demands on the Guggenheim beyond those within the direct influence of a single arts institution and which require involvement at the highest levels of government—namely the issues of recruitment fees, living wage, and the right to organize—while capitalizing on our name and spreading mistruths about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project. Earlier this year, we reached the conclusion that these direct discussions were no longer productive and decided to end them.

Contrary to the authors’ claims, GLC did not introduce the Guggenheim to the topic of workers’ welfare or to the International Labor Organization, one of a number of labor-related groups with which we have engaged over nine years. Neither did media coverage of GLC’s direct actions against the museum yield reforms to the EPP or the appointment of an independent monitor, both of which were the result of commitment and effort on the part of TDIC and its leadership.

Perhaps the most revealing statement by the authors is the assertion that “we have every advantage over the museum.” When your approach is opportunistic rationalization of your own behavior and your cause one of self-righteousness, that well may be the case. In the meantime, the Guggenheim remains committed to workers’ welfare on the future museum and to the principles that have guided us since our founding—the value of an international worldview, a commitment to the art and artists of our time, and an abiding faith in the transformative power of art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Refusal: Dread Scott on Trump, Flag Burning, and the Suppression of Dissent

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag,” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted at five minutes to six on the morning of November 29. “If they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” The statement shocked many, chiefly because the incoming president’s opinion is at loggerheads with established law: in 1990, the […]

What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, an installation for audience participation by Dread Scott

Dread Scott, What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, 1988. Courtesy the artist

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag,” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted at five minutes to six on the morning of November 29. “If they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” The statement shocked many, chiefly because the incoming president’s opinion is at loggerheads with established law: in 1990, the US Supreme Court ruled that laws banning flag desecration are unconstitutional, and in 1967, the court ruled that the government cannot strip citizenship from US citizens.

Someone well-versed in these laws is artist Dread Scott. As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1988, he created an installation piece called What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? It consisted of: a photomontage hung on the wall showing images of photo of flag-draped coffins and a shot of South Korean students burning US flags; a shelf with a blank book in which visitors could respond to the work’s titular question; and, on the floor beneath it, an American flag that visitors could walk on to write in the book. Called “disgraceful” by then-President Bush, the work prompted legislators, nationally and in Chicago, to propose laws banning such use of the flag—all of which became law. One, the “Flag Protection Act of 1989,” prompted Scott and others to burn flags on the US Capitol steps in protest. We invited Scott—author of a Walker Artist Op-Ed on the police killing of Michael Brown and an artist featured in the Walker’s 2014 presentation of Radical Presence—to share his reaction. 

In 1989 I, along with others, burned flags on the steps of the US Capitol in defiance of the “Flag Protection Act of 1989,” which in part contained wording intended to outlaw my artwork What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? In the resulting Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that flag-burning is constitutional. With his tweet, Trump is issuing an edict that this ruling should be overturned and people should be punished for this kind of dissent—stripped of their rights to become stateless people.

Dread Scott burning a flag on the steps of the US Capitol, 1989. Courtesy the artist

Dread Scott burning a flag on the steps of the US Capitol, 1989. Courtesy the artist

The American flag flew over the Supreme Court that issued the Dred Scott decision that stated that a Black person “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” It was carried by the cavalry that committed genocide against Native American peoples. It is worn by the cops who killed Eric Garner and countless others; it is painted on the drones that kill people in Pakistan and worn by the sheriffs and Army of Corps of Engineers soldiers who are attacking the water protectors at Standing Rock.

Trump has promised to conduct mass deportations, force Muslims to register in government databases, torture families of suspected terrorists, and impose “law and order.” He has surrounded himself with neo-Nazis, climate-change deniers, Christian fundamentalists, and robber barons who with official power aim to eliminate access to abortion, seal borders, and expand wars. And he has unleashed a core of angry white people with a lynch mob mentality. As he does this, he is declaring that fundamental critique of America and the government won’t be tolerated. In the face of this, I hope that there are many more flag burnings. His proclamation should be defied as part of people demonstrating that we will not accept a fascist America.

Some have argued that Trump’s tweet about flag-burning is a distraction from the real issues, like who he is appointing to his cabinet or his conflicts of interest. Believing that this is a distraction is dangerous logic that would end up accommodating Trump’s fascist program. His response to Colin Kaepernick’s courageous refusal to stand for the national anthem was to say, “he should find a country that works better for him” (people have often made this suggestion to me as well). Historically, fascism has required extreme nationalism and created sections of people who have no rights. Fascism suppresses dissent. Trump is targeting protest—and, specifically, protest that challenges national cohesion.

In the Führer’s new America, actors, athletes, and others with a public voice are told to fall in line. It is no accident that he has targeted the extremely popular musical Hamilton because the audience righteously booed Mike Pence’s presence and the cast called out his bigotry from the stage. Trump has bullied and threatened the press, and many are normalizing his rule. Far from being a distraction, when Trump bellows that people who burn American flags should lose all rights, people should rise to that challenge in the same spirit that many who knelt with Kaepernick did. This needs to be done as people build an overall resistance to Trump’s attempt to consolidate his fascist rule.

Detail from What is the prop

Detail from What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? Courtesy the artist

A statement published at revcom.us on November 10 begins:

In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE To Accept a Fascist America
Rise Up… Get Into The Streets… Unite With People Everywhere
to Build Up Resistance in Every Way You Can
Don’t Stop: Don’t Conciliate… Don’t Accommodate… Don’t Collaborate

This spirit needs to infuse our action, and I encourage people to read the whole statement as we confront the severity and the enormity of the problem we face.

Now is the time. People need to get outside of their comfort zone and act with courage as if the future depends on it—because it does.

My artwork, Imagine A World Without America, seen on the cover of the November issue of Artforum magazine, encourages readers to do what the title says. It is an important perspective that asks people to consider what the world could be without the profound influence of everything that is America. With fascist movements across Europe emboldened by Trump’s win, it is important to consider what the world could be without the profound influence of America. Art and ideas that encourage people to stand up to petty tyrants who try to impose horrors on humanity are needed now more than ever.

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.

larner-x-sm2

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

 

Second Thoughts: Les Levine at Walker Art Center (1967)

In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Pavel Pyś considers the 1967 Walker exhibition Les Levine: Two Environments, focusing on the artist’s installation Slipcover through the lens of works by Levine’s peers, environmental art, and institutional critique. By the time of his exhibition at Walker Art Center […]

Installation view of Slipcover as part of Les Levine: Two Environments (1967), Walker Art Center. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Pavel Pyś considers the 1967 Walker exhibition Les Levine: Two Environments, focusing on the artist’s installation Slipcover through the lens of works by Levine’s peers, environmental art, and institutional critique.

By the time of his exhibition at Walker Art Center in 1967, Les Levine had established a firm presence in the New York art world. Dubbed “Plastic Man,”[1] he worked with materials such as fiberglass, acrylic, plastic and mylar, and championed the concept of “disposable art” that be “destroyed as soon as the owner wishes.”[2] Made of plastic and white foam, Levine’s “disposables” took the form of inexpensive, modular, machine-produced reliefs and freestanding objects that Levine encouraged buyers to arrange as they pleased. “Accumulation of any sort is a constipated activity,” the artist proclaimed, and as a result many of his works from the late 1960s were discarded and survive via photography or moving image documentation.[3]

Curated by Dean Swanson, Les Levine: Two Environments included two room-sized installations: Slipcover and Primetime Star. To realize Slipcover, Levine lined all of the gallery’s surfaces with silverized mylar, while inside the space large mylar bags inflated and deflated. In addition, multiple slide projectors showed images of recent installation views of exhibitions that took place in that exact gallery.[4] Discussing Slipcover with Swanson, Levine said: “I’ve been calling my things places … something that completely encirclates [sic] you, and you become involved in the whole experience rather than it becoming part of another experience.”[5]

Levine’s emphasis on the specificity of “place” and the totality of an aesthetic experience as opposed to the viewing of discreet individual works, speaks directly to the notion of the “environment” as conceptualized by Allan Kaprow (1927–2006) from 1958 onwards. In Assemblages, Environments and Happenings (1966), Kaprow argued that “the line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible,” with the boundaries separating the space of the spectator and the space of the artwork dissolved and shared.[6] Kaprow, and peers such as Jim Dine (b. 1935), Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), and Geoffrey Hendricks (b. 1931), pushed this logic further through happenings—conflating not only the space of the spectator and artwork, but also pulling the activity of the viewer into the environment itself, positioning the audience as an active participant.

Gianni Colombo's 'Spazio Elastico' (1967-68), Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan

Gianni Colombo’s Spazio Elastico (1967-68), Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan

Levine distanced his work from happenings, dissatisfied with the notion of the script or planned action, instead arguing that Slipcover operated beyond his control, at any point offering the audience an “immediate, personal reality.”[7] For Levine, “the room is the subject,”[8] and by incorporating kinetic elements, Slipcover challenges the viewer’s very perception of space and their own place within it. Inflating and deflating, the mylar balloon bags prescribed one’s movement around the gallery space, at once obstructing and then giving way. In Italy, Gianni Colombo (1937–93) explored similar concerns in the installation Spazio Elastico [Elastic Space] (1967–68). Within a dark cube, Colombo stretched a three-dimensional, layered grid of elastic cords, each treated with fluorescent paint. Illuminated by black light, the strings were motorized and slowly pulled, skewing and distorting the viewer’s spatial coordinates. Colombo conceived of Spazio Elastico as “an experimental test-construction to research the optical and psychical behavior of the users, who … themselves will end up self-determining, in part, the image they perceive, open to associations of the possible space-dynamic relationships.”[9] Just as Levine placed emphasis on the present, embodied moment, so too Colombo directed attention towards the relationship between the body, mind and surrounding architectural space. Seen together, Colombo’s Spazio Elastico and Levine’s Slipcover (especially with its pulsating, breathing “lungs”) share common ground with the Brazilian Neo-Concretists, for whom the artwork was an “‘almost-body,’ a being whose reality is not exhausted in the external relationships between its elements; a being which, even while not decomposable into parts through analysis, only delivers itself up wholly through a direct, phenomenological approach.”[10]

Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga and others release a silver mylar balloon from the Factory rooftop on 47th Street. Photo by Billy Name

Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga, and others release a silver mylar balloon from the Factory rooftop on 47th Street. Photo by Billy Name

With their slick, reflective surfaces, Levine’s Slipcover occupied a material register at odds to those environments created by Kaprow, Dine, Oldenburg, and others. While the latter preferred organic materials and haphazardly painted cardboard and canvas, Levine opted for mylar, plastic, and steel, bringing about connotations to NASA and the Space Age, the futuristic and the industrial. Levine’s preference for the shiny and new chimes with Warhol’s contemporaneous Silver Clouds (1966), the inflatable floor sculptures made for his 1968 retrospective at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and the tin foil-covered interiors of the Factory. Both Levine and Warhol arrived at Slipcover and Silver Clouds, respectively, via painting, rather than sculpture. For Warhol, the helium-filled floating “pillows” were conceived as of as a means of “finishing off painting”[11]—freeing painting from the space of the wall. Entirely in line with Levine’s notion of “disposable art,” Warhol saw his Silver Clouds as ultimately throwaway—to be “fill[ed] with helium and let out of your windows.”[12] For Levine, Slipcover grew from the artist’s dissatisfaction with painting as bound to perspective and illusionistic space. By positing on space rather than object or plane, Levine sought to temporarily reframe the audience’s encounter with and experience of what a gallery could be.

Atmosfields (1970) by Graham Stevens, St Katherine’s Docks, London

Levine’s choice of materials and his emphasis on the architectural, share much in common with the sculptures and experimental architecture of British artist Graham Stevens (b. 1944). Throughout the mid 1960s and early 1970s, Stevens created a number of large-scale pneumatic sculptures, using inflated polythene forms. Inspired by the kinetic experimentations of artists exhibited at London’s Signals Gallery (1964–66) and collaborative practices such as Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV, 1960–68), Stevens employed inflatable plastics to propose new forms of “total architecture” and means of transport. His projects Walking on Water (1966), Atmosfields (1970), and Wavetube (1971) offered participatory spaces that questioned not only the possibility of what architecture could be, but also how it can exploit natural atmospheric resources, such as the sun, wind, and water. These concerns reached their height in Stevens’s mid-1970s work Desert Cloud (1974), a hovering, reflective structure that harnessed solar power and captured water.

Les Levine with Slipcover, Walker Art Center, 1967. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Projected directly onto Slipcover were installation views of exhibitions held in the surrounding gallery space, offering those familiar with the Walker’s program a reminder and of what had recently been on view. By layering images of the recent past, Levine sought to give the viewer a “new version of the room and all that space along with the memory of what it had been, [so that] the room became information about itself.”[13] In doing so, Levine points to the economy of the museum space—the comings and goings of works, and the inherently transient nature of the exhibition format. A year following Levine’s exhibition at the Walker, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–76) began the project Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles [Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles], an itinerant conceptual museum that operated between 1968 and 1972. A forerunner in the history of institutional critique, Broodthaers’s sprawling project brought together the usual museum furnishings and didactic materials (announcement cards, labels, etc.) with empty shipping crates (each labelled “picture” or “keep dry”) and reproductions of artworks shown as postcards or projected images. While Levine imprinted imagery of the Walker’s recent past onto itself as a mnemonic means, Broodthaers staged the museological site to question how it produces aesthetic experience and creates meaning. With no actual permanent site or collection, Broodthaers’s museum was his self-proclaimed fiction, a vehicle to unpick and study the methods of creating, collecting, and displaying artworks, and the means by which order and context are imposed upon them.

Brochure cover for Les Levine's 'Slipcover', Art Gallery of Ontario, 1966

Brochure cover for Les Levine’s Slipcover, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1966

Levine’s nod towards the Walker’s institutional history dovetails with the approach taken by British artist Simon Starling (b. 1967) in Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts), an exhibition the artist curated at London’s Camden Arts Centre in 2010. Starling selected works from the past 50 years of exhibitions held at Camden and installed them in precisely the same places where they had once been seen before. Criss-crossing vastly different times in the institution’s history, Starling’s exhibition created a composite, layered collage of Camden’s past, highlighting the movements of each artwork, and the shifting contexts they are subjected to. Both Never the Same River and Levine’s use of projected installation views in Slipcover beg the question of how the museological space structures our experience and memories of artworks. Levine and Starling suggest that artworks never exist in their own isolated reality, but instead pick up the traces of where and in what dialogue they had been previously exhibited.

Les Levine in front of 'Primetime Star' installed as part of Les Levine: Two Environments (1967), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

Les Levine in front of Primetime Star installed as part of Les Levine: Two Environments (1967), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Footnotes:
[1] David Bourdon, “Plastic Man Meets Plastic Man,” New York, February 10, 1969, pp. 44–46 / Artforum

[2] Les Levine quoted in Rita Reif, “And the Walls Come Tumbling Dow,” New York Times, April 19, 1967

[3] Les Levine quoted in “Les Levine: the image breaker,” The Aspen Times, August 17, 1967, pp. 7C

[4] Levine exhibited an earlier iteration of Slipcover at the Art Gallery of Ontario (September 23–October 23, 1966). Here, in addition to projected images, the installation included closed circuit TVs that showed the audiences movement delayed by three seconds, as well as amplified sounds picked up by microphones in the gallery space. While it is possible to trace the use of projectors in the materials held in the Walker’s archives, it is uncertain whether Levine used TVs and sound within the installation of Slipcover at the Walker.

[5] Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Dean Swanson held in Walker Art Center archives, pp. 1

[6] Allan Kaprow (1966) Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings. New York: Abrams, pp. 31

[7] Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Dean Swanson held in Walker Art Center archives, pp. 4

[8] Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Brydon Smith held in Walker Art Center archives

[9] Gianni Colombo, Spazio Elastico. Ambiente visuocine-estetico programmato (progetti: Milano 1964-67), typescript in the Archivio Gianni Colombo in Milan, published in C. Steinle, ed., Gianni Colombo. Ambienti (Graz: Neue Galerie, 2007), p. 50 quoted in Beccaria, M. The Body in the Net: Gianni Colombo’s Spazio elastico in Christov-Bakargiev, C. (ed.) (2009) Giannni Colombo. Castello di Rivoli / Skira

[10] Neo-Concretist Manifesto, Rio de Janeiro, March 1959, signed by Amilcar de Castro, Ferreira Gullar, Franz Weissman, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Reynaldo Jardim, Theon Spanudis reproduced in Clark, L. and Bois, Y., “Nostalgia of the Body”, October, vol. 69, Summer, 1994. Italics in original, p. 93.

[11] Andy Warhol quoted in interview with Gretchen Berg, “Nothing to Lose,” Cahiers du Cinéma, May 1967, pp. 43

[12] Ibid, pp. 43

[13] Transcript of interview with Les Levine held in Walker Art Center archives, interviewer unknown

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.”

you-the-better-expanded-study-1-cropped-min

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.

you-the-better-expanded-study-2-cropped-min

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.

you-the-better-expanded-study-3-cropped-min

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

study-no-2_playing-field-and-spin-min-min

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

picture1

Ericka Beckman, Study for Power of the Spin

eb_study-for-center-of-the-spin_jm_pp-min

Ericka Beckman, Study for Center of the Spin

eb_study-for-ytb-slateman_jm_pp-min

Ericka Beckman, Study for You The Better, Slateman

eb_study-for-ytb-wheels-and-gold_jm_pp-min

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

gameplay-study-no-2_1982_oil-stick-on-paper_24-x-36-inches-min

Ericka Beckman, Gameplay, Study No. 2

eb_gameplay-study-no-3_jm_pp-min

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.

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