An Update

Lisa Oppenheim, Passage of the moon over two hours, Arcachon, France, ca. 1870s/2012, April 11, 2012.

Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.

In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.

In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.

In May, I spoke with artist Sara VanDerBeek about her new exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York. I’ve followed Sara’s work since the beginning of her career, and wrote about her for Aperture in 2011. I also commissioned photographer Barney Kulok, who recently published a book on Louis I. Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, to review a new book about Le Corbusier’s relationship with photography. He turned in a much broader, more ambitious essay on the relationship between buildings and pictures that I was proud to publish. I also talked to photojournalist Michael Kamber, who was the New York Times’s principle photographer in Baghdad from 2003 to 2012. He had just published a new anthology of interviews with combat photojournalists called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. I also chatted with photographer Anne Hardy about her exhibition at Maureen Paley in London, where she exhibited, for the first time, standalone sculptures not used in the creation of her photographs. Lastly, in the just-published Summer 2013 issue of Aperture (#211), I introduced a portfolio of photographs by Lisa Oppenheim, whose work I’ve long admired.

This month, I spoke with an old friend, artist Tony Feher, about the newest iteration of his twenty-five-year survey exhibition, and about the process of looking back on more than two decades of artmaking and life. An edited version of our conversation was published on

Interview at Design Observer

The writer Mark Lamster interviewed me about “The Permanent Way” for Design Observer. We discuss revisionist histories of Gilded Age America, the difficulty of choosing photographs for an exhibition, and the “visual rhetoric” of westward expansion, among other topics. Click here to read the transcript of our discussion. The exhibition remains on view at apexart in New York until July 28.

Interview: Carol Bove

Published as the cover story in Art in America, May 2012. For more information on Bove, contact Maccarone.

Detail of W.A., 2010, shells, steel, concrete, and bronze

Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and 1970s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films, and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions—of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises—both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.

Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take, and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ‘60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) ad rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.

The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to September 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced.

* * *

[Two excerpts from the middle of the interview]

SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?

BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things … and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.

SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?

BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.

SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.

BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now—I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.

SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?

BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the works’ intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.

* * *

SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?

BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.

SHOLIS Near the water?

BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks—my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.

I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs—shabby America.

SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?

BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.

SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you send them on.

BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up unbecoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.

Untitled, 2009, peacock feathers on linen

Interview: James Benning

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins (A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.

James Benning, Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007-January 2008

The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:

I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

Interview: Liz Deschenes

Published in Art in America, March 2012. For more information about Liz Deschenes, visit her page on the Miguel Abreu Gallery website.

Liz Deschenes, Tilt / Swing, #3B, 2009.

From early experiments with green-screen backdrops to recent, camera-less images made by exposing light-sensitive paper directly to the night sky, Liz Deschenes has persistently explored the photographic image-making process. She isolates the component parts of mechanical seeing and underscores the materiality of the screens that display images. But the loveliness of her artworks belies the astringency this description suggestions.

Deschenes (b. 1966 in Boston, Mass.) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988 and has worked in New York since the early 1990s, exhibiting regularly from the end of that decade onward. She outlined the contours of her practice with “Photography About Photography” (2000), an exhibition she curated for Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York that drew together artists (Vera Lutter, Adam Fuss, Thomas Ruff, Uta Barth) who likewise explore the medium’s mechanics. I first encountered her work in a 2003 exhibition, also at Andrew Kreps, where a selection of her monochromatic photographs illustrated a range of printing and display techniques. These works, in varying shades of gray, were bereft of information when seen from a distance, but upon closer inspection revealed details that hinted at how they were made. One was an image of a plasma television screen (turned off), other photographs made with the light from an enlarger. These works, though conceptually related to their predecessors, seemed far more sober than Deschenes’s earlier, brightly colored images.

As the decade progressed, her work shed external references. Yet from limited means Deschenes creates a visual plenitude. For her 2007 solo exhibition at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery, she photographed perforated paper held against a window, then superimposed two copies of each negative in an enlarger to create moiré patterns that were somehow both understated and optically vibrant. Two years later, “Tilt/Swing (360 degree field of vision, version one),” her show of six graphite-colored photographs installed on that gallery’s floor, walls, and ceiling, revealed no image. Yet the installation captured the reflections of viewers who stood among the works, as if the prints were being continually remade in the image of their beholder. That their untreated surfaces are meant to oxidize, to change over time in response to the atmosphere, adds a sense of romance to the blankness.

As the unconventional presentation of “Tilt/Swing” suggests, Deschenes has added to her explorations of the medium an interest in display strategies. Now she thinks of her work almost exclusively in terms of the other artworks with which it will be shown, and the conditional nature of that approach extends to her studio itself: she doesn’t have a room to which she retreats daily. She divides her time between New York and Vermont, where she teaches at Bennington College, researching and experimenting constantly but making her art on an as-needed basis. At present it’s needed at the Whitney Museum, where she’ll participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she will exhibit in a two-person show with Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl [April 21-September 3]. We spoke in January at the CUNY Graduate Center.

* * *

[Excerpt from the middle of the interview]

DESCHENES Of course, there’s a deep research component to the work, some of which takes place in terms of teaching, at Bennington or elsewhere. I build scale models for all of the exhibitions in which I participate. The Usdan Gallery at Bennington is actually based on the third floor of the Whitney building, so instead of using a foam-core model I used a model that was built in the early ‘70s …

SHOLIS … that you can walk into!

DESCHENES … that I can walk into and actually feel the proportions of the work. The initial proportions I came up with for the four-panel piece [to be installed in the Whitney Biennial] were too wide for the space, so I narrowed them down. And returning to my interest in pedagogy, I think the Art Institute exhibition points to those concerns. Using the Breuer—er, using the Bayer—I can’t believe I just confused them! They weren’t close friends. Using the Bayer drawing to guide people through space in a new way touches on this. And of course what gets installed on those walls will be equally crucial to understanding the exhibition, and I like that a lot of those decisions haven’t yet been made. The walls are being built right now, but I won’t know until I actually go to Chicago what work gets installed, so there is an aspect of spontaneity that frees me from a daily studio practice. I’m more interested in responding to the conditions of exhibitions. As they change, I can change along with them.

SHOLIS Your “decisive moment” happens during the installation process?

DESCHENES No, it keeps on happening. I constantly have to respond to the changing conditions of the work, which is part of the reason why I’m trying to make work that also changes during the exhibition—and beyond. Because there is no decisive moment.

SHOLIS You also mentioned pedagogy. For a long time you were learning new things about photographic technology, but now it’s also as if you’re trying to give yourself a kind of autodidact’s M.Arch. degree. Reading new kinds of drawings—plans, axonometric views, and so on—almost entails a new way of seeing and thinking. Is that a fair characterization of what you’ve been up to in recent years? And, if so, does that impact the ways that you think about the field of photographic image-making you know so well?

DESCHENES That’s an interesting question. Earlier I described the Whitney photographs as being stand-ins for the building. The building will obviously continue to exist, but as a newer or different institution. So to actually put scaled photographs representing the façade in the interior of the museum is a way off repositioning what you would generally find outside them museum. I don’t necessarily need to understand the things that Breuer had to understand in order to build that building. It’s more about trying to understand photography through architecture.

Luc Sante, Folk Photography

Butte, Montana, July 1916

Butte, Montana, July 1916

My interview with Luc Sante, about his new book Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930 (Yeti/Verse Chorus Press), has just been published on Click through not only to read his ruminations on this early-twentieth-century phenomenon, but also to see a slide show of additional images from the book. In the course of our discussion, Sante reiterated his point (from the book’s introduction) that he sees the real-photo postcard as a link between late-nineteenth-century American photography (of the Civil War, of the American West) and the “documentary” style of 1930s-era photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration. One aspect of our conversation that did not make it to the final edit of the text, however, concerned the links (if any) between the real-photo postcard craze and art being made between, say, 1905 and 1915. Sante suggested that the pictures are in almost every way contrary to what the Pictorialists, grouped around Alfried Stieglitz, were doing at that time, and cited how startling it was when Paul Strand’s photographs published in the final issue of Camera Work depicted commercial signage. At another moment in our discussion, Sante pointed to enterprising late-nineteenth-century photographers as one possible precedent for the real-photo postcard, citing Solomon Butcher, a postcard photographer whose work from earlier decades included a spectacular series depicting pioneer families on the Kansas-Nebraska prairies. The images in Sante’s book, which are culled from his own collection of the postcards, are pretty remarkable, and his essay is as thoughtful and well-written as you would expect. Click here to read the interview and learn more.

(NB: From the book’s extended caption to the image above: “The 62-foot-tall, 44-foot-long elk was constructed by a stage designer named Edmund Carns to welcome a convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the country’s largest fraternal organizations. The plaster that coated the statue included $1200 worth of high-grade copper ore mined nearby; its eyes were made of 10-inch, 75-watt nitrogen lightbulbs. Before the month ended the elk had been taken down and its copper recovered.”)

Interview: Michael Sorkin

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

Michael Sorkin is a New York–based architect, urban planner, educator, and the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Variations on a Theme Park (1991), Exquisite Corpse (1994), and After the World Trade Center (2002). His latest book, which examines the history and changing face of New York through the lens of his morning commute, is Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on June 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

The idea for the book came about fifteen years ago. Walks are contemplative times and spaces, and going over the same territory day after day gave me the opportunity to see things over the relatively longue durée: construction projects, seasonal activities, changes in commercial life, in culture, in the population. After dilating internally on the happy accidents produced by the city and on the quality of my immediate environment, I thought I’d begin to write about it. Not only did I want to do something a little bit popular, but also to bring together discourses that are normally segregated: formal, economic, sociological, political, quotidian. I wanted to show, for example, how the ratio of a stair riser has ramifications up to the organization of property and beyond. Twenty Minutes turned out to be frequently delayed; I probably completed half a dozen other books while writing this one. I was also gentrified out of my old studio midway, which changed my route. But the walks were comparable and in the same neighborhood. The only historical event that doesn’t fully register in the pages of the book is 9/11, in part because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.

In bringing together these various discourses, I hope in some small way to counteract architecture’s continuing obsession with narrow formal issues. The social side of architecture has been disastrously slighted for many years. Things are now beginning to change for the better, as social issues slip into architecture under the cover of environmentalism. If the moniker we use to recuperate ideas of equity and fairness is “environmental justice,” so be it. The risk is that many urban problems are more deep-seated and widespread than a narrowly constructed environmental idea, in which things are broken down into categories and considered solved. Aspiring to LEED certification is not enough. Architects—as well as critics and educators who contribute to our profession’s current myopia—need to see not simply constituent parts but how those parts interact as part of a larger and far more complex system. The book is predicated on the understanding that nothing in the urban environment exists autonomously, that the city is a web of fascinating contingencies.

Here in New York, we’re beginning to see glimmers of more enlightened thinking. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, though vague, points in the right direction; Janette Sadik-Khan, our transportation commissioner, is bringing to the streets the first fruits of her fascination with Copenhagen, the poster-town for pedestrian planning. (That our plutocrat mayor believes deeply in the leadership of private initiative doesn’t help; public amenities shouldn’t have to sneak in a profit-making arrangement for private partners.) These positive developments have a lot to counteract: for over a century, cities have tried to redesign themselves in order to accommodate first trains and then cars, two modes of transportation that can be lethal for urbanity. We now need to start with the image of a desirable city and then imagine the transportation technologies that might produce it. Only neighborhoods and communities structured to eliminate the need to move long distances at high speeds will wean us from our automobile addiction. My book, like Jane Jacobs’s great The Death and Life of Great American Cities, imagines a city based on bodies and basic principles of affinity.

Jacobs was a tireless activist, and small-scale initiatives and community solidarity are both important. Neighborhoods and localities must be empowered; we need to leverage cooperation in tractable and inventive ways. This is something I try to do with Terreform, my nonprofit organization—to raise expectations, to show what the possibilities are, and to help give expression to dreams and desires that find difficulty reaching the mainstream. As I say in the book, the future of the city lies not in the superposition of the next great idea but in the careful articulation and expression of many fresh and familiar differences.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Damon Rich

In late 2008, Damon Rich, an artist, designer, and founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), presented an exhibition at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the possible relationships between finance and buildings. That exhibition will be reprised as Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center at the Queens Museum of Art in New York from May 31 to September 27. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on May 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center began as a broad proposal for the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT about risk, and in particular about the rise of risk management as a form of planning. In the past fifteen to twenty years, it seems like planning focused on concrete visions or goals has given way to planning that catalogues the risks to which one is vulnerable—with the goal of preserving and expanding the status quo. This is a bit abstract; for me, focusing on finance and architecture brought the proposal back to earth. How does the notion of financial risk affect the built environment?

Though I trained as an architect, I’m drawn to things that touch architecture but are not buildings. My two previous exhibition projects produced by CUP at the Storefront for Art and Architecture were about building codes (how political demands rendered in laws are expressed in the built environment) and about urban renewal (how ideology is revealed in the distorted use of past policies to justify present actions).

I want to take apart the notion of technical expertise in a democratic context. My exhibitions function as a kind of case study or experiment; each begins with a group of investigators who know little about the subject at hand, acting as stand-ins for the general public. MIT has the number-one-rated urban planning program in the country; it also has a fairly new Center for Real Estate; and, of course, it has the management school, engineers, and theoretical mathematicians. I spoke with many of these experts, attended meetings, visited archives—and from these materials put together an exhibition. While exhibitions are just about the least cost-effective way to organize people politically, for me they contain a set of potentials that the initiatives of a mission-driven nonprofit organization like CUP—mainly school programs and community workshops—often do not. A nonprofit has to be disciplined by measurable outcomes, but an exhibition is a chance to stage a more open-ended encounter in three dimensions, to use abstraction to recontextualize imminent realities.

Another privilege of exhibiting in a gallery or museum is the luxury to say that in examining so complex a topic—which engages real estate brokers, architects, federal regulators, economists, and, of course, the public—you don’t have to subordinate everything to clarity and immediate action. You can dwell on the innumerable internal fissures and contradictions that bear on political contests. Often when I tell people I’m doing a project about foreclosures, financial justice, and housing, they say, “That’s really great!” But I don’t think people should assume an exhibition about foreclosures is inherently good; I hope to encourage engagement and skepticism through the practice of representation.

Every single piece in the show tries to use a specific visual strategy to stage a relationship with the audience. For example, one of the most basic and central ideas to finance is the interest rate. The relationship an interest rate instantiates between a borrower and a lender is an abstract thing, and it’s discussed in a naturalized manner—the interest rate goes up, the interest rate goes down, like the temperature. Yet national mortgage interest rates are nothing but an index of a social relationship between borrowers and lenders. So I built a forty-foot-long plywood barrier that’s cut in the shape of the prime rate; one can see, at about 1980, when the interest rate shoots up, because the barrier itself shoots up to about thirteen feet in height. The mute graph you see on the nightly news hopefully becomes visible and legible in a new way, as containing stories of political and social relationships. Another piece is a series of sixty-six photographs of houses in the Detroit metropolitan area, arranged on metal stands in their actual geographic relationships: One can walk among them and understand housing outcomes: dilapidated neighborhoods on the east side of Detroit; big, brand-new houses in outlying Lyon Township in the western suburbs. I hope it causes people to question what produced this differentiated set of buildings.

The series of public programs is an important part of the show and will feature people who know far more about redlining than I do, even after all the research. Redlining is a visual fiction, a metaphor cleverly crafted to mobilize people into political action. In fact, it is so effective that people today use it in all kinds of ways to stand for the inequities of capitalism—in financing, city services, insurance, even Internet service. But it’s also a slippery concept, as is another that is often used today, “disinvestment.” Both have great explanatory power, but you can’t ever really point to them in action. It’s important to understand these concepts and how they have functioned historically in order to better grapple with the messy process of making change.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: James Calvin Davis

James Calvin Davis is associate professor of religion at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. He is the author of The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics (Westminster John Knox, 2004) and editor of On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Harvard, 2008). After spending much of my autumn researching Roger Williams, and having benefitted both from Davis’s one-volume selection of Williams’s writing and his own interpretation of the Puritan dissident’s life and work, I contacted Davis to request an interview. This conversation was conducted by e-mail during January 2009; the links you’ll find in the questions and answers were inserted by me and are not to be seen as endorsements by Davis. More on Williams can be found in this December 29, 2008, TSWTT post. –BJS

* * *

In the last fifty years, historians and theologians have done much to situate Roger Williams in his seventeenth-century context and to tease out the details of his religious thinking. Recently, scholars have made great efforts to incorporate his concept of freedom of conscience into histories of the first amendment. Yet you look at Williams through the lens of morality. Can you speak about how this aspect of Williams’s thought (and life, if applicable) first appealed to you?

I first became interested in Roger Williams as a graduate student in ethics. While doing graduate studies, I developed an interest in Puritanism, and the ways in which Puritan figures and the Puritan culture helped shaped the moral and political culture of the United States, beyond the stereotypes of Puritan prudishness and theocratic control. My studies led me to Williams, and the more I read of Williams, the more I was convinced of his relevance to contemporary ethics, especially (at first) a prominent question in contemporary religious ethics, the relationship between religion and morality. Do we need religion in order to maintain a public morality? Can Christians in particular make a contribution to a vision for public morality without either appearing to endorse theocracy or appealing to a universalistic basis for morality? These kinds of questions brought me back again and again to Williams, and the more I read of him, the more fascinating a figure I was convinced he was, and the more relevant I was convinced his worldview was to our “modern” questions of public ethics. Eventually I decided to write my dissertation on him.

It has been twenty years since the last significant publication of Roger Williams’s writing, Glenn W. LaFantasie’s edition of his letters. Aside from the long time since that publication and the scant number of copies of earlier editions of his writing, what prompted you to prepare a one-volume, modernized edition of Williams’s texts?

I was motivated to prepare the collection during my graduate studies. The more I read of Williams, the more I thought others ought to as well. His continuing relevance to questions of public morality, church and state, and civility in politics seemed obvious to me, but few scholars as late as the 1990s were appealing directly to Williams because his writings were so inaccessible. Another result of this inaccessibility was that people were misunderstanding Williams, specifically missing the central importance of religion to his liberal worldview. (Incidentally, this misinterpretation still occurs; Martha Nussbaum’s work laudably resurrects Williams for a wide audience, but she insists on minimizing the impact of his Puritan religion on his views, interpreting him instead as a pre-Jefferson Jeffersonian.) I became convinced that returning Williams to a prominent place in our intellectual heritage, and getting students and scholars to read his works, required a readable edition. I hope this collection does just that.

Near the end of your introduction to On Religious Liberty, you describe Williams’s experience as a kind of “moral anthropology” that allowed him to devise an “internal argument” for the cause of religious liberty. Will you elaborate on the idea of his “moral anthropology” a little bit?

What I mean by that is that Williams offers a theological understanding of human morality, including claims about the universality of conscience and the reliability of natural moral capabilities, that allows him to argue that public morality doesn’t require government defense of religion. This is an approach that’s likely to be much more persuasive to traditional Christians (and perhaps other religious persons) than appeals to Enlightenment assumptions about the alleged private nature of religion and the preference of reason over religion. So in that way his approach allows him to make an “internal argument” to his co-religionists (then and perhaps today) for why they should support religious liberty and find alliance with secular devotees of the “separation of church and state.”

You mention in an answer above the popular (and recurrent) misinterpretation of Williams as a kind of Jeffersonian founding father born a century early. While some have suggested that, through Locke, those who conceived our country’s first amendment may have been influenced by Williams, that is not the same thing as saying they embodied his intellectual spirit—which turned precisely on the centrality of theology to his thought. Who, since Williams’s own day, embodies for you the intertwined concern for religious principles and liberal political values? I suspect you may say eighteenth-century Baptists, given the mention of them in conjunction with your discussion of Locke in the introduction to the new volume, but please feel free to pick a few figures from disparate eras.

Well, you’re right that I think the main lineage of Williams’s perspective on religious liberty is religious, and most obviously represented by the Baptists. Although the Southern Baptist Convention sometimes seems to forget the preference for “separation of church and state” advocated by their intellectual heir, historically Baptists in America have been instrumental in arguing for religious freedom, encouraging popular support for religious freedom, and demonstrating that the institutional separation of church and state can be very, very good for religious communities as well as the larger society (their prominence on the American religious scene is the best evidence). But it’s not just the Baptists who represent this theological legacy. Williams was a Puritan Calvinist, and the Calvinist tradition in the United States (e.g., Presbyterians and Congregationalists) continue his commitment to religious liberty. Furthermore, one can make the argument that Williams’s commitment to religious liberty has transformed Roman Catholicism’s perspective on the issue. Once quite hostile to the idea of true religious liberty, the Catholic Church did an about-face on the subject in the 1960s during Vatican II. The principal influence on the Church regarding this issue was an American Jesuit named John Courtney Murray, whose theological arguments show the clear influence of, among other thinkers, Roger Williams. These days even political philosophers are rediscovering Williams, most notably Martha Nussbaum, whose recent book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality puts Williams front and center in this American tradition (though, as I said in an earlier answer, I don’t think she gets his theological indebtedness quite right). So although his influence is indirect, Williams’s effect on religious and philosophical commitments to religious liberty—in the US and more globally—is undeniable.

Which other books or essays on Williams have you found particularly helpful, either as a good introduction for readers new to him or as particularly revelatory even for those who may be familiar recent scholarly work?

Anything Edwin S. Gaustad has written on Williams is a must-read. Specifically, I’d recommend his most recent book published by Oxford in 2005, entitled (imaginatively enough) Roger Williams. He has such a readable style; that small book makes a great introduction to Williams and his importance. In addition, I warmly recommend Timothy Hall’s book Separating Church and State, in which he introduces the reader to Williams’s thought and its importance to the legal tradition of religious liberty. Hall’s book influenced me greatly.

Lastly, would you care to describe in any detail the book on “religion and the debate over moral values” that you are working on?

The book is called Good Faith Reasons: Religion and America’s Perennial Battle over Moral Values. This book, written for a general audience, is a call for clarity in the seemingly endless debates over moral values and the role of religion in those public debates. Looking at the history of religious involvement in public moral debates in this country, I argue that there is nothing wrong and a lot right with religious people wanting to contribute to American moral culture from a religious point of view. At the same time, a healthy debate over moral values has to acknowledge explicitly that there are a lot of different ways to prioritize which moral values are most important, and which values issues are most important. So in the end, the book is a call to secular liberals to be more open to religious contributions to public moral debate, and a call to religious conservatives to be open to the probability that they’re not the only ones in those debates with some kind of commitment to moral values.

Interview: William Chapman Sharpe

William Chapman Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College in New York City, is the author of Unreal Cities (1990) and coeditor of Visions of the Modern City (1983). His new book, New York Nocturne (2008), examines images of the city after dark in literature, painting, and photography from 1850 to 1950. To get a sense of what Sharpe attempts in the volume, click here to read the book’s description and here to read the introduction (warning: PDF link), which Princeton University Press has made available via its website. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on November 27, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve spent my entire professional life engaged with the modern city’s representation in art and literature. Unreal Cities discussed poetry about the metropolis by Wordsworth, Whitman, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and others. I’ve always straddled the Atlantic, surveying not only New York but also London and Paris. This book germinated when I looked at works by James McNeill Whistler and realized that his art must have influenced the way people imagined the city at that time. My original effort was an attempt to understand how Whistler’s vision of the Thames, which is mostly represented horizontally in his paintings, was translated into representations of the vertical reach of New York City. The darkness and mist that covers the bridges and the far shore of the Thames revealed to Whistler an abstract and elemental formal quality that was instrumental in making his art so revolutionary—a deliberate arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface. As soon as photographers began looking at the vertical geography of New York they began to see ways they could capture the unusual forms by covering details in the same cloak of darkness.

Whistler wasn’t afraid to make enemies or to go to court (as in the famous lawsuit against John Ruskin) to demand that he be recognized as a revolutionary artist who had showed urban citizens something they had never seen before. He even compiled his rebuttals to his critics in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His influence extended beyond the realm of the visual arts; for example, when Ezra Pound was trying to promote imagism in London in the second decade of the twentieth century, he cited Whistler’s courageous artwork in support of his ideas. Returning to the visual arts, even so brash and semiabstract a painter as Joseph Stella, whose sharp angles seem distinct from Whistler’s delicacy of touch, also began his career as a maker of Whistleresque nocturnes.

It can be said that Whistler showed people how to paint a “moonlight” (his original term for what he later called “nocturnes”) without ever depicting the moon. This, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of artificial light, helped liberate the representation of night from a number of qualities that had become clichéd, most notably that it was a time of reflection and pastoral repose that would carry us back to childlike innocence.

But of course the book is not all about Whistler. The motif of the flâneur runs throughout. I try to show that Edgar Allan Poe had partly celebrated and partly parodied this figure in his story “The Man of the Crowd.” What he notices is that the flâneur can’t really make anything happen; his whole job is to observe and comment. But beginning in the late nineteenth century the flâneur becomes an investigator. Think of Jacob Riis, who was dedicated not just to observing the world but also to changing what he saw.

The book shows that we have a number of ways of looking at the night—from seeing it as a gaslit immoral Babylon to wondering at the skyscraper fantasia. We alternate between fear of what might be out there and absolute delight in the way it looks. We’re beguiled and discomposed at the same time that we wander down the streets. Such fluctuation is an omnipresent quality in the nocturnal city. While I try to tease out separate strands of it, any time we regard the city at night we do so with a bundle of ideas and emotions that range from fear and dismay to sexual excitement to a sense of being both voyeur and victim. The word voyeur seems key to understanding an artist like Weegee, who tried to bring us a flashlit consciousness of the city. In his clever comments on the staginess of city life, he became a producer and director of the night. But he was a producer who urged us to indulge ourselves in the thrill of watching somebody else suffer, and for this reason I ultimately found him less honest and compelling than Riis. Weegee was more enamored of himself than anything he depicted. While he shows us the worst about the night, he also shows how the night can bring out the worst in ourselves.

In the book’s epilogue I discuss various attempts to reconnect the human species to the full range of natural experience, including natural night. If for no other reason than economic reality, people will gradually change the way they light up the night. We may see a more consciously managed image of the sparkling city. The classic views of the skyline offered a totally unplanned panopoly of light. But perhaps greater patches of darkness, and the understanding that when it’s dark it’s not necessarily as unsafe as we fear, will intrude upon this vision of the city. We will gain a lot as human beings if we can look up once again and see the stars.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Michael Wolf

The Asia- and Europe-based photographer Michael Wolf is known for his fine-art and editorial photographs depicting rapid growth in Asian cities. A new series of photographs made in Chicago, “Transparent City,” goes on view this week at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and is collected in a book just published by Aperture. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on November 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

Michael Wolf, from the series "Transparent City," 2007

The experience of photographing in America was not much different from photographing in Asia, really. The challenge was more conceptual: After working so long in Hong Kong and China, I wasn’t sure I was capable of working somewhere else. I feel in tune with what is happening in the East, and am so inspired by the architecture, food, people, and flux of life there, that I was afraid I’d feel disconnected from an urban landscape in another part of the world. Luckily, when I came to Chicago in 2006 to install some photographs, I rode an elevated train into downtown from the airport. It was a wonderful visual experience, looking out and seeing everyone through the office windows. I remember arriving at the museum and meeting the curator, and by my third or fourth sentence they asked whether they could arrange an artist residency for me. A year later, the deal was done.

I had thought about working in New York, in part because I’ve worked so long with what I call “architecture of density” in Hong Kong. But there are logistic problems in New York that don’t arise in Chicago. In Chicago, the buildings are spread out, they’re more loosely structured, and ten- or twelve-story parking garages are interspersed between them. From the garages, you can look into buildings. I would go up onto the twelfth floor of a parking structure and get a nice view into the neighboring building. To prepare, I went onto Flickr and printed out every photo of the city’s downtown Loop, then drew red arrows pointing to all of the roofs to which I wanted access. In Hong Kong, every building has guards and you must apply for permission to get onto the roof, but researchers at US Equities, who supported my residency, were able to get me access to 99 percent of the rooftops from which I wanted to photograph.

I began my series “Architecture of Density” by photographing close-ups of vernacular subjects in the back alleys of Hong Kong’s downtown high-rises. I enjoyed the photographs but thought the series of seventy or so images was conceptually one-dimensional. I felt the series would be enriched if I could bring in another layer of meaning, so I began to take photographs of the buildings from a distance. In Chicago, I worked in the opposite direction, beginning with the architecture. I felt, however, that I was bumping up against the same problem. Then one evening I was looking at a photograph I had shot and I saw in it a man giving me the middle finger. In the exact moment he made that gesture I pressed the shutter, even though I had probably been standing there for twenty minutes.

It set off a chain reaction in me, and I began to look through every file at 200 percent magnification to see what else was going on in those windows. I saw hands on computer mice and family photographs on the desks of CEOs; I saw people watching flat-screen TVs in the evening. It was a bit lonely, particularly when I was photographing corporate office towers during the first banking crisis in November–December 2007—I could see through my telephoto lens the tension and stress those bankers were feeling. By zooming in on details, I manage to introduce a certain vernacular visual language as well as balance the faraway with the up close.

I don’t consider these works portraits; I’m not doing a portrait of Chicago. In fact, the city’s characteristics don’t really figure into my discussions of the series. It could be any large urban city. I simply proceeded by answering the question, Which vantage point gives me the ability to look into a building? One building that fascinated me was the very big courthouse downtown. The judge’s rooms are in the corners of the building, and I wanted to catch a moment when lawyers were standing in the hallways of seven or eight consecutive floors so that the image would depict them locked into little cells, like a Robert Wilson stage design. Despite the unpredictability of my process, I have very specific images in mind as I work. Edward Hopper was a particular inspiration for this series, and I was looking for the types of images he specialized in. I was trying to translate an idea—or, rather, to find it in reality.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Lance Hammer

Director Lance Hammer’s debut feature film, Ballast, won awards for dramatic directing and excellence in cinematography at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It opened on October 1, 2008, at Film Forum in New York and on October 17 in selected theaters nationwide. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on October 1, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Prior to making Ballast, I wrote another feature script that was called Alluvial. It was a Delta story as well, and my first attempt to write a story in the place I had grown to love. I shot short scenes excerpted from the script in order to raise financing, and that loosely cohesive presentation was akin to a short. It taught me two things. First, that Alluvial was not the story I wanted to tell. I loved the Delta region so much that I tried to speak with too much specificity about the place; the work proved to be too obvious for my taste. The second lesson was technical—I received my education as a filmmaker working on Alluvial. I didn’t go to film school; I was an architect by training. Exploring the mechanics of filmmaking—working with lights, using a dolly—gave me the confidence to discover that I actually hated them and could abandon them when I made Ballast. And I did; in Ballast, I had a completely different approach to recording both images and sound. What the two have in common, though, is the fact that they deal with mortality. Freud said he thought everything was about sex and only eventually discovered it was all about death.

I’m of the belief that if you can use one note to communicate something, why use three? One note resonating over the space where three notes should have occurred has more power, and that is how I now would approach any work. It appears particularly suited to the Mississippi Delta, where the pace of life is so different from New York or Los Angeles. More than anything else, I tried in Ballast to communicate with as much accuracy as possible what it feels like to be in the Delta during winter. Narrative was always secondary to that. In fact, I don’t like dialogue in films—or, rather, it’s tough to do really well. I’m not the Coen brothers; I don’t think I can write as well as they can. I’m much more interested in image, sound, and conveying tone, communicating something uncommunicable. Music and language would intrude on what is uncommunicable about the Delta.

I understand that to some extent this is an aesthetic construct, but I also believe that one’s personal aesthetic is a reflection of one’s life experience. I believe that life is very difficult—which has been my experience, certainly. I value persistence and think that one of the only avenues of hope in the darkest moments of life comes when you are making art. I’ve struggled with a sense of futility—not least with trying to get films off the ground. But nothing dims my strong desire to make them, and in a sense, the writing of the script for Ballast manifested hope. I think the story reflects this.

The interesting thing, then, was to give up on following the script closely once we were shooting. I’m a control freak; I confess to that readily, and I was expecting problems with not giving my actors dialogue to follow. But I wanted to bring real people’s words to the project and to watch those words be elevated and hopefully transformed through the process of filming them. In the rehearsal process, when I first saw that happen, I knew nearly immediately that there was a lot of power in giving parameters or instructions and letting the actors respond. I provided skeletons; they provided living tissue. When I saw them do that, there were magic moments for me. I admit to having no authorship and am satisfied by that as an artist. I realized I was incapable of doing what I wanted to do alone. The actors, and also Lol Crowley, my cinematographer, completed the work. It was a joy to behold.

When we were done shooting, I spent two years cutting the film. I tried everything—every iteration of every scene. I tried to turn my intellect off and use my intuition. The geese at the opening of the film, for example: I was unconsciously aware of a desire to start from chaos, to have a reflection of that in the form itself, and then have a slow progress toward stability. I’d like to say it was a conscious way of thinking about the film, but it was actually a filmmaker friend, Chris Gorak, who suggested I open with that shot. In a way, though, broad questions about intentionality are unanswerable.

Now that the film is done and has been seen by audiences, I can understand why people have grouped it with other recent films as offering a kind of “new American realism” or an “American regionalism.” I’ve seen Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, and it is certainly a joy to watch. There are affinities between the works—a reverence for subtlety, an appreciation of the power of small and ambiguous moments. But as much as anything else, perhaps this is a reaction to Hollywood. Speaking only for myself, I had a difficult time existing in the Hollywood system toward the end of my time there because I can’t stand its dominant narrative forms. The assumption in Hollywood is that audiences are stupid or need to have everything hammered into their heads. I think art is ambiguous. If we were still in the days when you could sell a film and make a lot of money for it, then perhaps that would tempt me. But for now I have nothing to lose. The only thing to be gained is from making something I can believe in.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Sara VanDerBeek

Artist Sara VanDerBeek, who, with her brother, Johannes VanDerBeek, and Anya Kielar, owns Guild & Greyshkul gallery, is the daughter of experimental filmmaker and animator Stan VanDerBeek, who died in 1984. Guild & Greyshkul presents an exhibition of Stan VanDerBeek’s work from September 13 to October 18. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on September 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

The process of organizing our father’s estate and putting together this exhibition has been intensely emotional and very exciting for both Johannes and me. When he passed away in 1984, only a few months after an initial diagnosis of cancer, there were no instructions regarding how his artworks should be cared for or organized. Everything was piled up in his office, and it was eventually split up among various family members. Only recently, as the administrative aspects of handling the estate have become too difficult for our mother, and as our father’s first wife asked us to handle the artworks in her possession, have we realized the scope of what he kept. It turns out that much of what went into making the films and multimedia installations remains extant, but not much has been done to organize it. We spread everything out in the empty gallery this summer and began to piece it together, a process made difficult by the fact that sometimes only photographic documentation remains to guide us in reconstructing moving-image and three-dimensional artworks. To that end, I describe some of these works as “approximations.”

Johannes and I initially decided to present an overview of our father’s career, but now that we’ve installed the exhibition, we realize that it focuses on his involvement with language—in particular his desire to create a means of universal communication using images. There are many early works, from the 1950s and early ’60s, some of which an audience familiar with his work might not know. The show includes a twelve-part series of paintings from around 1956 that combines small images with words and seems to us to mark the beginning of his experimentation with animation. With certain works like the fax mural and Violence Sonata [1969], the show touches on his experiments with then-new technologies, which occurred with increasing frequency from the late ’60s until his death, but which we realized could constitute another show in itself.

One challenge is presenting this work in a gallery context. While he was collegial with a wide range of people—from scientists and computer programmers at places like MIT and Bell Labs to artists like Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine, who is the main performer in a film we’re exhibiting—he remained most closely involved with the experimental-film, -media, and -animation communities. He never worked with a commercial art gallery during his lifetime, and the majority of the items he chose for his CV were performances, screenings, multimedia events, and residencies. This is, like everything else, a problem compounded by the facts that we’re his children and that we have very different ideas about how to present the work than he might have had. Finding that balance has been both a challenge and a pleasure.

Some decisions were easier than others. For example, we’re presenting a whole wall of collages, most of which our father signed and dated, which indicates to us that despite the fact that he used them in animations, they are themselves finished artworks. Making his animations was such a time- and work-intensive process that I can’t imagine many such collages survived, and he would want to present the ones that did, whether as artworks or as concrete documentation of that process. Something I really enjoy about seeing these works together with the films is the shift in scale: They are all quite small, especially in comparison with how large the images become when projected onto a wall.

All this, of course, bears on my own art. Earlier this summer, I went away from New York and came up with an idea for a large multipart photographic work. When I returned and was laying out one of my father’s fax murals, I realized that the gathering of different framed images that I had imagined must have been directly influenced by him. The re-presentation of images from his archive that I had done in earlier photographs of mine also crops up in his work: He not only used found imagery but reappropriated images from his earlier work in later pieces. Symbols and themes—hammers that hit people on the head in comical ways, forks flying through the air and poking people in the eye, using images of eyes to direct viewers’ attention—recur through his films.

We hope that the way we’ve organized the exhibition will allow artists working today to connect with our father’s practice. He was also an incredible writer, and we’re presenting some of that material, along with drawings, on tables in the gallery. His utopian desires—the Movie-Drome [1963–65], the fact that he lived for some time on a piece of land owned by an artists’ cooperative—and his wry take on contemporary politics seem particularly relevant today.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Nicole Eisenman

During the past fifteen years, New York–based artist Nicole Eisenman has created a self-aware and psychologically probing body of work that includes installations, animations, drawings, and, with increasing focus, paintings. “Coping,” an exhibition of new paintings and monoprints, opens today at Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin and will remain on view until October 18. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on September 6, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I made the paintings in this exhibition throughout the past year, gravitating, as I often do, to particular images (both found and imagined). I put them in drawings and then on canvas, initially working on one at a time and then on several at once. When selecting paintings for the show and thinking about them as a group, I realized that they are all somewhat depressed or depressing and that what ties them together is their embodiment of different notions of coping. The world can be a depressing place these days. I don’t think I’m depressed—though I did experience something akin to a midlife crisis recently—but the state of the world, and my opinion of it, necessarily filters into the work.

The earliest painting in the show is Coping; it depicts people trudging through muck in a town setting, which directly preceded a revelation I had in the studio that it was time to try painting interiors. That in turn led to the canvas that depicts me in a therapist’s office. But the epiphany about painting interior spaces was less about the subject matter than it was about my need to push myself formally. I frequently paint vague outdoor scenes, like Coping or The Fagend, in which the figures are placed in an artificial, tableaulike environment. If you take the figures out of The Fagend, it’s just a big bunch of abstract blocks with patterns on them. I liked that aspect and wanted to pursue it further. To do so, I debated taking the figures out of these canvases, but I couldn’t. I’m not ready—and don’t want—to make that jump.

In a way, I couldn’t do it because I don’t know how else to make paintings. What would I pull from? If the figures aren’t included, these constructed worlds seem entirely removed from reality and rather self-indulgent. You need the figure—or, rather, I need the figure. Not necessarily for narrative, as the work ends up being as much about feeling or atmosphere as a particular story. The atmosphere of this show is one of sadness. Sadness arises from particular circumstances, but it can move from the mind into the body, from something focused into something more general—a lethargy, that pit in your stomach. I hope there is a connection between the movement of an intense emotion as it infiltrates the body, becoming less legible if no less present, and the dissolving of the figures in my works into patches of abstraction. (Perhaps viewers will be able to tell I’ve been looking at Edvard Munch and the Impressionists lately.) This is particularly true of the thirty prints in the exhibition depicting people “crying,” where washes of ink run down and obscure their faces.

In a way, the whole show is a collection of faces. When visitors walk into the gallery, they encounter the thirty prints and then Brooklyn Biergarten II, a very busy scene—a painting of heads that are locked in space because their bodies lie on top of one another. Last year, when I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them, to paint them for the rest of my life. There’s a whole genre of paintings, particularly French ones, of people eating and drinking, and the beer garden seems to be the equivalent, for certain residents of twenty-first-century Brooklyn, of the grand public promenades and social spaces of the nineteenth century. It’s where we go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a fucked-up place and about our culture’s obsession with happiness. The paintings in this show hopefully present something of a ballast to that obsession. It is healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Roger Hiorns

British artist Roger Hiorns is known for deploying salt, industrial-strength disinfectants, and, most consistently, copper sulfate crystals in his sculptures. A solo exhibition of new work opens next week at Corvi-Mora in London. It is timed to coincide with Seizure, a new, large-scale installation commissioned by Artangel and presented at 151–189 Harper Road, London, September 3–November 2. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on August 28, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Roger Hiorns, Seizure, installation view, London, 2008

Roger Hiorns, Seizure, installation view, London, 2008

We didn’t have any expectations for the site of Seizure when we began looking, and in fact we traversed every single borough of London in search of a suitable building to host the installation. It’s quite eye-opening to do that kind of research. At the time we were looking, the city was in the midst of its housing and property-development boom, which has now completely dissipated; London has become a different place quite quickly. What we eventually found was a very isolated, stand-alone, uninhabited small housing block from the 1970s. Its aspiration as a building has always been quite limited; it was mostly bedsits. In a way, I’m accentuating the last period of its use. The few buildings we found during our search were mostly social housing of this type, which are themselves another part of London’s history that is now being eclipsed. Interestingly, though, the building is right in the heart of the city; it’s in a pocket of isolation in the center of London, incredibly urban and yet very quiet.

Once we found the location, the production itself was conceptual: I wanted to introduce a material that was anathema to the building itself. Crystallization is always, for me, a kind of claiming—I say “claiming” because the process is so amplified here as to be a kind of obfuscation of the building. I’ve encouraged an alien aesthetic, one quite contrary to its vaguely modernist history (with its roots in Le Corbusier’s designs). The building has a certain sort of governing rationality; by introducing these crystals, I’ve introduced some irrationality. The process also allows me to remove myself from the equation; crystallization is an autogenesis, and its results are an auto-aesthetic. I get to become an objective viewer of my own processes, at least to the extent possible. It’s a psychological position to take, to try and obsolete myself within my own realm of activity.

To that end, it has been very interesting to observe the people with whom I’ve worked on this project. I’ve tried to understand the way they work and what their expectations are. Watching them meet this profound ambiguity—my detachment from my own artmaking process—has been fascinating. I don’t anticipate any artwork to be made. I just put structures into place, and something comes into existence. Will it actually happen? Will there be a failure because of contamination? I’m not going to be helpful and say what it’s going to look like. I prefer the massive loss of control.

The project itself has two phases. There is the site at present, with its crystallization taking place behind closed doors. It’s an unrelenting process, which has a certain purity, but not one I can predict. The second phase is to open the doors and tamper with that process—to fuck it up. People will enter into this crystallized environment—well, possibly crystallized, as we don’t know what kind of landscape will appear within the building—and their entry is part of its destruction. The viewer always has a role to play in my work.

How people will respond to the environment, how they will read it, is completely up to them. I don’t want to evoke a particular type of space; I don’t intend for this crystalline environment to seem spiritual or theatrical. I would probably call myself a kind of atheist in this respect: Processes are always for me a kind of compulsion, a psychological need, and not a spiritual yearning. I’m curious about one’s relationship to objects and to one’s own surroundings, rather than being interested in building superstitious links to the outside world. I’ve created an unnatural system to which one must respond; the thing is actually just the sum of its parts. That sum might lead toward something deemed transcendent, but that’s happening within you.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Lawrence English

For over a decade, Lawrence English—a Brisbane, Australia–based musician, record-label owner, installation artist, and festival organizer—has served as a nodal point in the international network of experimental musicians and sound artists. His label, Room 40, has released more than fifty records by musicians from four continents, and he is increasingly busy as a record producer. Kiri No Oto, a new album of solo material that blends field and studio recordings, is available from Touch Music. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on August 9, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Lawrence English performing live

Lawrence English performing live

The idea for Kiri No Oto gestated for about three years and finally came together last winter on a train ride from Berlin to Krakow. While gazing out the window through the early-morning mist, I realized that if you look through fog, you must focus on either one element in the landscape or the landscape as a whole; you can bring into relief one object or none at all. The fog interferes, and in creating the record, I tried to translate that visual effect into sound. A listener can attempt to absorb the sound mass or decide to focus in an effort to better connect with a particular frequency spectrum or texture.

I tried to achieve this complexity through the use of harmonic distortion. There are two kinds: First, there are mathematical relationships within a harmonic system that one can look at and exploit, and then there is a simultaneously looser and more conceptual version, in which you create a series of harmonically related elements that move in and out of sync with one another. Both create different types of clouds, or sound masses, that, properly manipulated, can signify a particular kind of experience. The great challenge in making a recording and sending it out into the world is that each person who experiences it does so in a different way. In fact, I just played the record for a friend from Germany, who said, “I understand this music so well because you’re from Australia.” He “heard” the broad swaths of sky visible here; of course, I made the album, in part, while thinking about his country.

That’s one of the great things and one of the limitations about sound as art: It’s not as encoded, as broadly sociologically constructed, as are visual objects. With only little more than a century of recorded audio, sound artists and their audiences haven’t consolidated the codes and languages for relating the experience of it as fully as have visual artists. This is in some way analogous to the situation of sound art within the institutional landscape in Australia, where there has been only one exhibition that could be considered a sound-art show. (There is a heritage—albeit a relativity short one—of this type of exhibition in the United States and Europe.) Therefore, a lot of the activity here still takes place in private gallery and performance spaces and more informally within the arts communities.

Visual cues often play a role in my work, and one of the first catalysts for the development of this record was Kiri [Mist], a short 1971 film by Hagiwara Sakumi in which a gentle scrim of white mist slowly dissolves to reveal a mountain in the distance. A later visit to Oamaru, in New Zealand, consolidated the idea of masking and visual distortion as central to this album as a whole. While no one who listens to the record will necessarily think about Hagiwara’s film or about Oamaru (which manifests itself in the final track), the transcription of visual or embodied experience into the auditory realm is important. The record, itself a condensed version of my experience, opens out into the listener’s world and creates new experiences of its own.

In a way, I’ve replicated that process in the recent live shows in which I’ve performed this material. I use no visuals; the venue is almost entirely dark. But since I’m playing through quadraphonic and sometimes octophonic sound systems, I’m able to fill the space with sound, condense it down to one small object (the snare drum, which I use alongside an oscillator and a speaker), and then expand it once again.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Eleanor Antin

For nearly four decades, San Diego–based artist Eleanor Antin has provocatively engaged histories real and imagined through photographs, performances, films, videos, writings, and drawings. Since 2001, she has completed three series of allegorical photographs based on Roman life: “The Last Days of Pompeii,” “Roman Allegories,” and “Helen’s Odyssey.” A survey that focuses on these works, titled “Historical Takes,” is on view through November 2 at the San Diego Museum of Art. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on July 29, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118". From the series "Helen's Odyssey."

Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118". From the series "Helen's Odyssey."

All my life I have had a passion for ancient Greece, since reading Bulfinch’s Mythology as a kid. At the time I first read it, I wished that I could live in ancient Greece. But then, later, when I found out how badly they treated women, I kind of cheated and just shifted my allegiance to ancient Rome, where women had some rights and might even have lived interesting lives. One day after my retrospective exhibition at LACMA in 1999, I was driving the scenic route down to La Jolla, and looking down at the town glittering in the sun, I suddenly had a vision that La Jolla was Pompeii. Pompeii was a very wealthy town, too; it was the place where rich people went in the summer to escape mosquito-plagued Rome. It was the place to which older senators retired if they survived Roman politics. People living there enjoyed the affluent life while on the verge of annihilation. You don’t even need to consider our current political situation to see a connection: The cliffs are eroding, we’re on a major fault line, the wildfires get worse and worse, there are water shortages. California is overbuilt and disintegrating. So we don’t have a volcano, but it could be just as bad. There is always something autobiographical in my work, and when I made the connection between where I live now and my first love, I jumped on it.

“The Last Days of Pompeii” provokes an immediate response, since the story has entered the poetic imagination of Western culture. I wanted to see if it was possible to use contemporary people in my own Southern California and pass them off as more or less believable Romans. Stylistically, I used the image structures of nineteenth-century French and English salon painting, which had flattered colonial Europe by depicting it as the new Rome. “Roman Allegories,” which I did next, is, I think, less accessible—perhaps because allegory, despite its rich history in premodern art, is not part of contemporary culture. Only recently have artists become interested again in telling stories. (Allegory is, of course, related to representation, and for some time, representation was anathema to an art world that glorified abstraction.) Whereas my Pompeii depicted everyday Roman life, in this series, I highlighted theatricality and explored a number of commedia dell’arte archetypes and their shifting relationships to one another. I believe this series was more complex. I was going through a bad time in my life, so there’s a darkness that pervades the images that I think adds to their mystery. (In fact, a skeleton that I’ve kept in my studio for decades makes a few cocky appearances in some of the photographs.) These photographs work like a hall of mirrors. I like to think of them as defective narratives that can be made whole by looking deeper into them for layers of meaning, for more stories. “Helen’s Odyssey,” which I just completed last year, is a kind of amusing riff on the male epic. Helen is always vilified as a seductress and both admired for her beauty and feared for her power—yet however she’s interpreted, her place in our historical fantasy has always been legitimized, written, or painted by men. I wanted to humanize this woman, to find her beneath the covering of stories that obscures her to us.

Looking at all three series together, as I’m now able to do, I find even more connections between them —psychological, political, philosophical—than I had previously suspected. When I was working, I moved both intuitively and intellectually. But perhaps I couldn’t realize how deeply each series flowed into the next. Looking at the images now, I think, Wow! I didn’t waste the last eight years. This exhibition reveals that my three series constitute a complex single invention that was worth the effort after all.

The works themselves blend pathos and comedy, or comedy and tragedy. This may be due in part to the influence of my mother, who worked in Europe on the Yiddish stage—and we all know the Yiddish theatrical and literary tradition: “I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.” Comedy and tragedy go together; I could never separate them. We’re on the edge of the abyss at every moment, and it doesn’t make sense for an art world to be entirely too committed to one mode of expression or the other. We live both all the time.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Robert Pogue Harrison

Robert Pogue Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University, is a literary scholar and translator whose interests include the Italian lyric, Dante, Renaissance humanism, and phenomenology. The University of Chicago Press has just published Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on July 25, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Several years ago, when I was invited to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of photographs of gardens by contemporary artists, I had no intention to embark on a book on the garden. After writing a twenty- or twenty-five-page essay, though, I realized I had only scratched the surface of the topic; there was a rich cultural history waiting to be told. In a way, I could almost use the metaphor of the gardener going into the ground as a way to describe my own research. One thing I discovered is that gardens are the places where appearances draw attention to themselves as appearances. What appears in many gardens is put into relief in a way not dissimilar from how many artworks put into relief their own phenomenality. Gardens, like art, invite us to take the time to learn how to see them; they offer an education in ways of seeing.

In retrospect, I see that this book has enough in common with my two earlier books, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and The Dominion of the Dead, to constitute a trilogy. All three can be seen as a sustained reflection on the humic foundations of culture. In the case of Forests, however, I had undertaken a more comprehensive history, moving through the epochs from ancient to contemporary. I wanted to avoid repeating that strategy with Gardens; I didn’t want this book to be a history, but more of a reflection or meditation—hence the subtitle. An essay evokes the sense of essaying, of trying to look at something thoughtfully but from a nonexhaustive point of view.

This created a number of problems about what to include and exclude. Since no one methodological principle seemed more justifiable than another, I felt free to wander. I learned a lot about things I didn’t know; I wasn’t just going over old ground. Two of the big heroes of the book were not well known to me before: Karel Capek and Epicurus. I lingered on Epicurus in chapter 7 because I found his philosophy has extraordinary relevance for our own times. I think our age is ripe for a creative rediscovery of Epicureanism.

In the book, I suggest that Epicurus’s garden was a place where human and social virtues, trampled on by the so-called real world, could reflourish under carefully husbanded circumstances. The arts can play a similar role today, I believe, especially when considered in light of the broad reduction of a three-dimensional world to two-dimensional forms, the impoverishment of the real through media technologies and new forms of virtuality. While certain forms of contemporary art make interesting use of those technologies, my belief is that one of the most important vocations of art in our age is to restore to reality its full-bodiedness. You can call this a rehumanization, a cultivation of the human in the midst of dark times.

The conversation of philosophy, or exchange of ideas, idealized or exalted by Plato, Epicurus, and others, remains, for me, one of the richest sources of human happiness. Writing—and criticism—can be understood as a prelude or preamble to the conviviality of that conversation. The fact that so much of it took place in gardens is not by chance. Conversation, philosophy, friendship, conviviality, serenity of mind—these are virtues that call for a sustained, almost daily cultivation of the self and its community. The garden for me is also a figure for this kind of cultivation—of taking into one’s care something that is not one’s self and being responsible for others and for the earth. The gardener does this in a way that is symbolic for many other human activities.

Gardening, like art, can counter the frenzy of our age, which is characterized by an aggravated consumerism that entails as its necessary correlate endless production and endless productivity. The daily turbulence that today’s capitalist economy requires militates against the sanctuaries of repose that I discuss throughout the book, of which gardens are typically a figure. My last chapter is titled “The Paradox of the Age.” The paradox is that, while the system is in a complete frenzy, what seems to be driving it is a desire to re-create a passive Edenic condition in which all the fruits of the earth will be provided for without care, labor, or pain—as if we could be consumer enjoyers of endless bounty. But the stories and myths that have come down to us through the ages, and which I treat in my book, tell us that the true source of human happiness is not consumption but cultivation, is not passive gratification but the assumption of active responsibility. That is why it’s all the more important to revisit the myth of Eden and to relearn its lesson, which I take to be the lesson of care. In my reading, the Eden story tells us that we needed to get out of that sterile, deathless environment in order to realize our human potential as mothers, fathers, husbandmen, statesmen, artists, friends, and caretakers of the earth.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Joan Jonas

As part of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and titled “Revolutions—Forms that Turn,” artist Joan Jonas will present Reading Dante, 2008. A performance will take place at 11 AM and 6 PM on June 22 at the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on June 21, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve known about Dante’s Divine Comedy for what seems like all my life, but I never read it before last summer. A few years ago, an artist described to me Dante’s own life, and it made me think about how fascinating it might be to work with his magnificent text. I began with the Inferno last summer, which I eventually read three times. The Paradiso, which is more difficult, I’ve read once. Fragments from both are incorporated into this performance and installation.

In my mind, Dante connects to Aby Warburg, who was central to my last large-scale work of this kind, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. Both had an overarching worldview. Dante thought epically during a moment—the medieval era—when people were very isolated, and Warburg attempted to synthesize widely disparate cultures through the lens of art history. For me, they both represent characters that are on a journey through life that involves thinking about the world as a whole, not just what’s immediately around them. The portions of the Inferno I’m particularly attracted to are the most abstract, or philosophical; I quote a fraction of the text and have been helped greatly by a wonderful book, The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses. I think Hilda Doolittle, who wrote the poem “Helen in Egypt” (which I’ve also used recently), thought similarly, although she incorporated much more quotidian experience. The everyday is how I relate to these broader issues; I try to translate these visions according to my vantage point on the present moment. The medieval era of Dante and the first half of the twentieth century of Warburg were both periods of extraordinary change, and I think the same can be said of today.

Reading Dante is composed of footage shot in four locations, although two are intercut so there are three “scenes.” One of the sites is in Canada, where I go in the summer. There, in a wooded setting, I perform as different characters, and I work with children. Another location is New York. I redeploy nighttime footage shot in the 1970s in the city streets with Pat Steir. We had a cameraman, and we improvised with my long metal cones and a hoop. A strange man joined us, and you can see him, too. This footage in particular, with steam billowing from pipes, steps everywhere, and dark vistas up canyonlike avenues, seems appropriate to the Inferno. The third location, a kind of circular modernist ruin surrounding a lava field, is in Mexico City, near the university. The artist Carlos Amorales told me about the location, and I filmed his wife, Galia, performing there. This footage is intercut with a shadow play I conducted in a church during a workshop in Italy. Obviously I’m translating Dante into my own eccentric, very personal visual language; I’m not attempting to illustrate the text.

Earlier this spring in London, I presented a related piece titled Infernal Paradise; for this, I played the footage I just described across five screens, while a monitor displayed video documentation of a reading at Orchard, in New York, for which I asked friends, including children, to recite portions of Dante’s text. It was a way of invoking Dante’s vernacular in the forms of the everyday speech I hear daily in New York. I’ve made a new edit for Sydney, and there will only be two screens. Also, I learned from a workshop in Barcelona last autumn that I should not say the words themselves during the performance, so I’ve recorded my voice. In my yearlong preparation for the Sydney performance, most of my time has been spent thinking about such questions of form and structure and how they relate to this amazing content.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: William Cordova

Earlier this year, William Cordova, whose artwork frequently references human rights struggles, organized two exhibitions for Ingalls & Associates in Miami. One, titled “Casa de Carton,” features an intergenerational range of contemporary artists, and the other, “Up Against the Wall,” the photographs of journalist Ilka Hartmann. Both exhibitions will open at Branch Gallery in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, June 20. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on June 18, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Two years ago, while doing research into commonalities across various radical groups of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I gradually realized that many of the documentary photographs I was encountering were taken by one woman: Ilka Hartmann. She was one of very few photographers who had covered such a range of activist groups—anti–Vietnam War protestors, Black Panther members, migrant workers—and she began doing so long before it was a common practice. When I discovered that she lived only an hour’s drive away from another place at which I would be an artist in residence, I resolved to meet her.

She was incredibly generous with her knowledge about that time period and offered background information on a large portion of her archive; from her, I learned about photographers like Ducho Dennis (of the Black Panther Party) and Hiram Maristany (of the Young Lords). This information is important to the exhibition; I’ve made sure to include materials that explain how her photographs were initially used and other contextualizing ephemera. Doing so hopefully slows down the way the visual information—her pictures, in this case—is disseminated, and how quickly and carelessly such images can be consumed in the fine-art world. I don’t want her images to become the bastard children of a generation or of a movement; it is important they do not become T-shirt-ready, like a photograph of Che Guevara.

Having earlier done an installation in a storefront in Durham, I was somewhat familiar with the city’s past and knew of a number of radical organizations in North Carolina, including the Lumbee tribe, which is still seeking full recognition from the US government, and a Black Panther branch in Winston-Salem. As with the presentation in Miami, I hope that visitors will connect the photographs—and, for that matter, the works in “Casa de Carton”—to the social history of the environment around them. In the past forty years, Durham has seen some extreme social conditions; once the “Black Wall Street,” it has since fallen on harder times. Even if such changes aren’t addressed by the mainstream media, they remain present in the daily lives of those who reside there. Presenting Hartmann’s photographs is an attempt to reactivate acknowledgment of these facts, to make visible aspects of the landscape that are invisible.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Brian O’Doherty

On May 20, after thirty-six years of presenting his art under the name Patrick Ireland, the Irish artist Brian O’Doherty reclaimed his birth name with the symbolic burial of his alter ego in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on May 29, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Brian O'Doherty buries the identity of Patrick Ireland. (Photo: James Horan/Mac Innes Photography)

Brian O'Doherty buries the identity of Patrick Ireland. (Photo: James Horan/Mac Innes Photography)

When the British shot down thirteen unarmed civil rights marchers in the city of Derry in January 1972, I was in New York. I thought, What the hell can I do? I decided that if I changed my name to Patrick Ireland and signed my works by that name alone, it would be a provocation, a statement. Every time I exhibited, it would give me an opportunity to tell people why I had taken the name. It was a gesture of solidarity with the nationalist side in the low-grade civil war that was then beginning in Northern Ireland. When young boys, especially young country boys from Ireland, went to work in Britain, they were called Paddies, which is half affectionate and half contemptuous. I decided to make it a name of dignity and substance.

The name was not universally cheered; the most vigorous criticism came from those in Ireland itself, charging me with presumptuousness. The endeavor was certainly an expatriate’s gesture. Nonetheless, in my Name Change performance in Dublin that year, I said I would sign my work by that name until the British military left Northern Ireland and all citizens were granted their civil rights. When that happened, it would mark the end of Patrick Ireland, the end of what could be called my political gesture of no great political sophistication. Not long after Name Change, Lee Krasner said to me, “You will never get your name back.” But with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, I began to hope I might reclaim my birth name. Now that the “evolution,” as they call it, has taken place, and both Sinn Fein and the IRA are represented in Parliament, I am astonished to be able to lay the name Patrick Ireland to rest.

The initial Name Change performance had a limited number of viewers, because all of them had to sign as witnesses. By contrast, the burial of Patrick Ireland was relatively open, insofar as the death mask created by artist Charlie Simmonds, encased in its own coffin, was exhibited in one of the museum’s galleries for two days next to documentation of the earlier performance. The coffin, carried by six young artists, was taken in a procession to a beautiful grave site overlooking a formal garden on the north side of the museum, where Michael Rush, director of the Rose Art Museum and a former minister, performed a brief secular ceremony. Five poems chosen or written specifically for the occasion were recited in their original languages—English, French, German, Spanish, Irish—and the artist Alannah O’Kelly performed the traditional keening, an Irish cry of grief. Her performance was nearly frightening, very primal. At that point, I tossed a spadeful of clay into the grave, unveiled the groundstone that will permanently mark the location, and tossed in the stocking mask I first wore in the 1972 performance. Joyous music broke forth, and we had a feast.

I’ll miss Patrick in some ways. I got very used to him. If you take the notion of naming seriously, as I do, a change like this sends a shudder through your core; subtle, perhaps attitudinal, but nonetheless visceral shifts take place. Nonetheless, I give up the name joyfully. I’m delighted that Brian O’Doherty is reborn after thirty-six years.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Anthony Huberman

Published as “Parallel Worlds” in Artforum, May 2008.

Curators at contemporary art institutions must not only engage with the question of how best to distill today’s broad realm of artistic activity but also ensure that their solution pleases a bifurcated audience: the general public and the art experts; the local community and the biennial-hoppers. Founded in 1980 to bring art to the city’s downtown, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has navigated this situation adroitly, particularly since reopening in a new, larger building in 2003. Director Paul Ha has overseen a mix of solo surveys (William Pope.L, Alexander Ross, Janaina Tschäpe), group exhibitions (African artists working outside Africa, women artists engaged with identity), and project shows with younger practitioners; located in a city more than half of whose population is black, the museum has featured numerous African and African-American artists. Four years ago, the Contemporary—which has no permanent collection—launched the Great Rivers Biennial, which gives awards and exhibition opportunities to local artists; the institution also sponsors community initiatives such as citywide open-studio events and a visiting critic and curator series.

Now, a year after Anthony Huberman left the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to join the Contemporary as chief curator, the institution is inaugurating a completely overhauled program. What marks this endeavor as unique is its attempt to address the two-audience dilemma explicitly, by placing exhibitions and programs in collagelike juxtaposition rather than subsuming them within a seamless projection of the museum’s identity. Huberman, who was also a curator at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and SculptureCenter, both in New york, has divided the exhibition plan into two streams that operate at different speeds. A gallery just inside the museum’s entrance, newly christened the Front Room, will present “independent voices from around the world” in a rapid-fire and improvised series of exhibitions, performances, screenings, and events; it has already featured seven shows in three months. “The Front Room should be flexible, responsive,” explains Huberman. “I want to be able to see something in Chelsea and present it in Saint Louis the very next month.” Earlier this year, while the Great Rivers Biennial featured three local artists chosen by a jury of curators from around the country, an array of other regional endeavors were given carte blanche in the Front Room: White Flag Projects, an alternative space in the city’s Grove neighborhood, allowed visitors to be photographed while being slapped; Snowflake/Citystock, an arts venue and design shop, installed a fitness center for artists; Maps Contemporary Art Space, located in nearby Belleville, Illinois, presented four-day-long previews of its upcoming solo exhibitions; and Apop Records, a local independent record shop, created a merchandise booth featuring “oddities from the fringes of underground culture.”

This month, Huberman’s plan for the main galleries launches with an exhibition of work by John Armleder and Olivier Mosset, eminent Swiss artists who are less known in the United States (where Mosset now lives). The duo will present a jointly conceived exhibition blending old and new artworks; at the outset of the show, the Front Room will feature artists affiliated with Cinema Zero, a collective that takes its logo from Mosset’s signature motif, the circle. Huberman intends artist pairings to form a basic structure for the bigger exhibitions, although the ways in which the participants relate to one another will vary: For example, there might be two unrelated solo shows, as in the autumn 2008 presentations of single-channel videos by Aïda Ruilova (curated by Ha) and artworks by Lutz Bacher (curated by Huberman), or a two-artist exhibition with a curatorial conceit.

The key, according to Huberman, is adjacency: “Not a equals b, but a alongside b,” he says. “I want the institution to be characterized by its lightness of touch, by its ability to encourage associative links among what’s on view, and then by its willingness to stand aside and let attention shine upon the artists.” He emphasizes that repeat visits to the exhibitions in the main galleries will nearly always offer new experiences, by virtue of their changing relationship with what’s in the Front Room.

Rules are, of course, made to be broken, and in a little more than a year Huberman plans to present a larger group exhibition. But by that time, he hopes that the structure conceit of artist-focused “pairs and parallels” will have become a kind of calling card for the museum, one that distinguishes it in the minds of art-world denizens and fits neatly into the visual-art landscape of Saint Louis: The city boasts an encyclopedia institution, the Saint Louis Art Museum; a privately funded blue-chip museum, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts; a university gallery, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University; and numerous smaller artist-run spaces of the kind featured in the inaugural Front Room presentations. Taking its place among them, the Contemporary is positioning itself as a kunsthalle that is relevant to both local and larger audiences.

Interview: Matthew Higgs

Published as “Talking About Communication” in the Metro Times (Detroit), October 3, 2007. To see the interview in context, click here.

“In New York,” says Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator of the city’s not-for-profit gallery White Columns, “someone who organizes an exhibition can rely on a certain bedrock experience, and, extending from that, a conditioned response.” The prolific curator, artist, and writer was in his windowless, record-and-art filled office at the southernmost reaches of Chelsea, discussing Words Fail Me, the group exhibition he’s organized for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. “We’re so familiar with Jack Pierson’s sculptures made of found signage that we’ve even seen them parodied in the Barney’s shop window. One of the fascinating things about Detroit is that the work of many of these artists is being seen locally for the first time. It certainly changed how I view a lot of the work in the show, and some of the inclusions were influenced by my visits to the city, which looks very similar to the area in which I grew up in the north of England.”

Words Fail Me, the second exhibition to be organized specifically for the museum by an outside curator, includes 16 artists and artist groups, from Tauba Auerbach, a San Francisco–based artist in her mid-20s, to Peter Fischli and David Weiss, eminent Swiss artists who have represented their country at the Venice Biennale and been the subject of several career surveys, most recently at London’s Tate Modern. What unites the disparate text-based artworks—videos, a neon piece, a nearly invisible sculpture made of pushpins, piles of posters free for the taking, a mural-size wall painting, a laser— is their engagement with the world outside of art. These “vernacular manifestations of language,” as Higgs calls them, range from Pierson and Ron Terada’s use of commercial signage to Carl Pope, Jr.’s riffing on the visual conventions of fly-posting and pamphleteering. “Others,” Higgs continues, “play off real-world entanglements of the use of language, the way that language manifests itself socially in public space.”

What results is “not a survey of art and language, or a survey of works that include language in them. It’s more about a cumulative mood, something that is a little more emotive. One can sense a melancholic acceptance of our present circumstances.” Is that where the exhibition’s title comes in? “Yes, to a degree. It seems that we’re at a point where language seems insufficient, or it isn’t enough by itself, however hard one might try to articulate an idea. There is always a potential for it to be misunderstood or misread.”

The works in Words Fail Me address imperfect communication, often by means of deliberate ambiguity. New York artist Siobhan Liddell’s contribution, “Weakness as strength” (2007), consists of those three words spelled out in clear pushpins on a 24-foot-long white wall. One at first sees a blank surface; only gradually does the message distinguish itself from the background; it will take longer still for each viewer to determine what the message means to him or her. Elsewhere, Jonathan Monk’s “Laser Piece Number VI (Nostalgic for the Future)” (2006) is precisely what the title indicates: A laser that spells out the phrase on the wall. Who provides the speaking voice for this work? Is the speaker nostalgic for an actual future, or for an era when the future seemed to be a bright prospect? Many of the works in the exhibition will prompt such questions; Fischli and Weiss’s piece, a slide projection they have exhibited around the world but reconfigured specifically for this show, consists of nothing but questions, a kind of philosophical graffiti projected from slides onto the walls.

Perhaps one of the most relevant interrogations comes from artist Kay Rosen, a longtime resident of nearby Gary, Ind. “Blurred” (2005) consists of the titular word rendered in eight-foot-tall blocky letters running across the corner where two walls meet. “Blu” is in bright blue; the central “r” is in purple; “red” is, of course, in red. A few years back, University of Michigan professors created U.S. maps that indicated that most of the country is politically neither red nor blue, and it’s to Rosen’s credit that her work counters reductive red state–blue state notions of our electoral affinities without seeming hectoring. As Rosen said in an interview about another recent work of hers, it is “coincidental and amazing that in this word structure corroborates meaning.” Rosen, who Higgs cites as influential to his thinking about Words Fail Me and to his own art practice, consistently discovers such felicities.

Also noteworthy is the art work created for the exhibition by London-based artist Jeremy Deller. “Folk Song (detail)” (2007) consists of three piles of posters, free for the taking, printed with an excerpt of a traditional English folk song about patriotism, nationhood and an individual’s relationship to those concepts. The central pile presents the lyrics in English, rendered in the typeface used on the London Underground; to the right they are printed in Arabic; to the left they have been translated into Hebrew. Higgs elaborates: “These letterforms — if we don’t read Arabic or Hebrew — are continually politicized. For example, the Arabic font stops being an elegant, illegible calligraphy and becomes something else instead.”

The ways text is incorporated into visual art can be plotted on a spectrum, defined on one end by description and on the other by what one might call counter-description. In the former, text functions as a caption, directly translating, substituting for, or providing additional information about an image; in the latter, language opens the image up to new interpretations (think of René Magritte’s canonical painting “The Treachery of Images” — aka, “This Is Not a Pipe). The majority of Words Fail Me tends toward the latter end of the spectrum, which will prove a boon to viewers worried about facing down dryly conceptual art works —Joseph Kosuth’s canonical Photostats definitions of words like “Abstract” or “Chair” do not figure into the show. “Each one of the works does something quite different formally, physically and experientially … on top of what it’s up to idea-wise or conceptually,” Higgs notes. “In a way, they have a theatrical presence.”

This is especially true of Pierson’s work, Dead (1996). Installed on a freestanding wall facing the entrance to the museum, “it’s the first work you see when you come in. It has such a visceral punch. Instead of the welcome mat you get an image of closure.” Beyond the sculpture, Higgs has installed a series of freestanding walls that divide the large rooms of the former Cadillac dealership into more manageable spaces, which adds to the theatricality.

“I wanted the show to have a complicated group of artists — early, mid-career and established — and to have no hierarchy in the way the work is presented in the space. It’s about your perambulation through the space” and coming up with your own aggregate conversation. If the show is a success, that conversation should reach far beyond MOCAD’s walls.

Interview: Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset

Published in the first issue of Ten Verses, a now-defunct online magazine I edited in 2002–2003.

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have collaborated since 1995. Their art fuses the legacy of 1960s and 1970s institutional critique with sexual and identity politics. In their Powerless Structures, often taking the form of sculptural installations, the “white cube” of the gallery space has been sunk into the ground, suspended from the ceiling, reproduced at ninety per cent scale, and opened up to other artists. Many of these works have actually been situated outside of the gallery or institution altogether, such as their Cruising Pavilion / Powerless Structures, Fig. 55, 1998. A park in Aarhus, Denmark, became the site of a gay cruising pavilion; its form mimicking the architecture of galleries while mixing private with public and bringing before visitors the activities that are often conducted in parks, however surreptitiously. I spoke with the artists via e-mail during May 2003.

Brian Sholis: Your decision to move to Berlin was a conscious one, and it coincided with the city’s emergence as a contemporary art center. What prompted the move and why did you decide on Berlin over cities like London, Paris, or New York?

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset: Well, first of all we have always been a bit lazy; Berlin was right next to Copenhagen (only 375 kilometers), where we used to live. Working as visual artists and also being a gay couple, the context of the Scandinavian art scene had become a bit claustrophobic for us. It was not exactly as liberated there as it might appear from an outsider’s perspective, especially not if you, as a gay man, had to do your stuff within the very macho-dominated art scene of the post 1980’s Denmark. There were few progressive art institutions and we began to know them all a bit too well. So we were looking for some new inspiration and energy, some new challenges. Rents and living costs were extremely inexpensive in Berlin around 1997 when we first moved to the city. Berlin Mitte was still a total shithole, full of squat houses, illegal clubs and small alternative galleries. Nobody really had a clue about how the city would develop or what it would turn into; the entire urban structure was chaotic and open-ended. It was quite a relief when we first arrived here from the hyper-organized Scandinavian society, where anyone thinks that the world is about to go under if the bus is five minutes late.

In 1999, we had a residency in New York and were seriously considering staying there—we made so many fantastic friends—but today we are quite happy that we decided to move back to Berlin. The Berlin scene seems more concentrated on content and dialogue than the scene in New York. The artists here support each other in a different way; it’s not so competitive. Somehow the art community in Berlin has kept its innocence whereas it can be hard to find a gallery show in Chelsea that is not just a “wrap-to-go” kind of show.

BJS: The flourishing contemporary art scene in Berlin mimics a structural transformation of the city unparalleled since post-WWII reconstruction efforts. How has the changing cityscape affected your artistic practice? How do power dynamics in the city of Berlin affect your thinking about the Powerless Structures?

ME & ID: The title of our ongoing series of works Powerless Structures is derived from our misreading Foucault. He speaks about how the structures themselves can impose no power—only the way we deal with them. The structures as such only reflect the public opinion and any structure could in fact at any point be altered or interchanged with a new set of structures. As a new or rather re-born capital, Berlin was undergoing a transition that gave the city a specific dynamic: it was probably triggered by a general confusion among the decision-makers since no one really knew what to do with a city that had doubled in size overnight. It was as if the regular control mechanisms had broken down. Even today the city planning is rather out of control in both good and in bad ways. Many temporary spaces have made important contributions to the cultural landscape here; venues open, close, and move to other locations all the time. These nomadic tendencies have certainly had an impact on our work and on our ideas of a more flexible public infrastructure.

BJS: In an earlier interview with Daniel Birnbaum, Michael, you stressed the importance of close communication with other people involved in your projects the need to have an interest in the specific exhibition place/community. Miwon Kwon has recently argued that notions of site-specificity have expanded from a sedentary model (physically site-specific artwork completely bound to its exhibition space) to a nomadic one wherein the artists’ expertise becomes a mobilizable force placed in exhibition spaces across the globe. As your practice becomes more well-known and as you travel further and more often to exhibit, how do you manage to develop/maintain ties to the quite specific communities and locales in which you show? If this proves too difficult, what do you think will replace these concerns?

ME & ID: In those cases where we do something site-related or when we do a project related to the local socio-cultural conditions, our personal contact to the community—which we may address or incorporate—is still highly important for us. Of course, it adds up to many research trips each year and we are not spending much time at home, but compared to when we first started working, we now have a much better setup in Berlin. We have some absolutely fantastic assistants that we collaborate with in our studio. This leaves us with the ability to concentrate more on the “software” part of our production and less on logistics and practical matters.

We resist ending up in situations where we just fly in, dump our art project, and fly out again the following day without having any impression of the city, the venue, or the larger context that frames our exhibition. It simply doesn’t make any sense for our working method. We keep in contact with a lot of the people with whom we have collaborated in our projects: the team of local female curators taking care of our gallery set up at Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana; the woman who lives above the Massimo de Carlo gallery in Milan; and some of the guys we just included in our project “Paris Diaries” in Paris. We consider this communication the fun part of the whole process, not an extra burden.

Doing more shows gives us the option of saying no to invitations if the conditions are not right, if there is a lack of communication or seriousness, if preparation and planning time turns out to be far too short, etc. Somehow we are still some fucking amateurs as we are driven mostly by our desire and curiosity. The difference between artists who did site-specific works in the 1970’s and today’s artists is not that big. Artists’ practices have always been mobile and artists have always been nomadic, but both the increased interest in this field and many practical factors (such as a faster access to information through the internet, cheaper air fares—and last but not least—a bigger economy in the art scene) makes it possible for us and most of our colleagues to operate with more flexibility and within a larger radius.

BJS: Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant write in “Sex in Public” that acts not commonly recognized as part of sexual culture (paying taxes, investing for the future, owning anything ‘his’ and ‘hers’, running for president) disperse “heterosexual privilege as a tacit but central organizing index of social membership.” They argue: “…the space of sexual culture has become obnoxiously cramped from doing the work of maintaining a normal metaculture.” It seems that the Powerless Structures can be read as attempting to “open up” space in public for queer cultures and other “nonstandard intimacies.” To what extent was this effort conscious, and, now that you have moved beyond the Powerless Structures, is opening up this space still an important part of your practice?

ME & ID: Almost all public architecture and city planning is based on totally outdated, Victorian nuclear family values. (Even for the average nuclear family of the new millennium.) Rigid public spaces in which all signs of diverse cultural inheritance or sexual backgrounds are erased do not function as common platforms anymore. They appear as void-spaces that only exist through the sub-cultural layers added to them, by their unintended use by different populations’ more-or-less hidden activities.

Because today most Western societies are comprised of multiple minority groups and communities, the meaning of “mainstream” has radically changed. The problem is that the urban landscape hasn’t kept up with this development. The standardized architecture that we experience in schools, hospitals, prisons, public squares, and parks—:as well as in most contemporary museums—reflects a moral codex, a lifestyle, and a demography that are not longer present. To challenge such structures—and the perception of public space as something that can be shaped like a neutral or objective entity in society—is an essential part of our practice.

Our Powerless Structures became at a certain point too much of a brand, a label or a formula by which the work could be quickly decoded and read. So we decided to title our projects in a different way. However, the topics that interest us remain the same.