$7.95 US / $7.95 Canada File under Art and Culture Display until JUNE 15, 2009
buying. selling. PAST AUCTION PRICES REALIZED: arman $25,200 robert arneson $26,400 radcliffe bailey $16,800 mike bidlo $15,600 norman bluhm $66,000 brian calvin $14,400 george condo $19,200 marlene dumas $42,000 sharon ellis $60,000 eric fischl $13,200 adam fuss $13,200 maureen gall ace $11,400 trenton doyle hancock $90,000 anton henning $32,400 liz l arner $27,600 graham lit tle $33,000 jason martin $25,200 mat thew monahan $33,000 henry moore $108,000 louise nevelson $25,200 thomas nozkowski $31,200 jules olitski $22,800 ed paschke $18,000 richard pet tibone $156,000 anne ryan $9600 john saccaro $21,600 jim shaw $25,200 theodoros stamos $14,400 john wesley $39,000 kehinde wiley $24,000 martin wong $14,400
P O S Tâ€“ WA R A N D CONTEmPORARy ART saturday, may 16 12 noon inQuiries meredith hilferty 866.724.6278 or email@example.com david wojnarowicz, watercolor on Xerox, sold for $7,800
BOMB / Number 107 / Spring 2009
artists on artists Mickalene Thomas by Kara Walker 72 rashid johnson by Sanford Biggers 74 76 joyce pensato by Marcella Durand BOMB SPECIFIC by David Clarkson
Blast from the past winter 1996
Patti Smith by Thurston Moore interviews
ART / Jacqueline Humphries by Cecily Brown In her hometown of New Orleans, Humphries created silver and ghost paintings in an auto garage for the Prospect.1 Biennial. The artists on the beckoning mutability of Humphries’s paintings. LITERATURE / Eric Kraft by Andrei Codrescu
Kraft’s new novel, Flying, tells the hilarious and digressive story of Peter Leroy, “birdboy of Babbington,” who as a teenager assembled an aerocycle in his garage. The authors on the Peter Leroy cycle, Alfred Jarry, and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. 38 ART / Roxy Paine by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Paine and the architectural team discuss Maelstrom, the most recent of his iconic stainless-steel tree installations, as well as his highly personal take on organic forms and machine-made art.
on the cover: Joyce Pensato, Homer, 2007, ink on paper, 90 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.
ART / Adam Bartos 50 by A.M. Homes
First Proof bomb’s Literary Supplement
Bartos photographs spaces redolent with a dearth of human presence. His is an architectural eye that reveals, as Homes states, “history passing, when culture is fading, when time has stopped.”
Bill Jacobson / Portfolio Ana Menéndez Rusty Morrison Sally Anne Clegg J.R. Thelin Charles Mary Kubricht / Centerfold Ben Ehrenreich Laura Mullen Michael Martone
ITERATURE / Mary Gaitskill L 60 by Matthew Sharpe With the publication of Don’t Cry, Gaitskill’s new book of short stories, she has become an ubiquitous interviewee—on which she remarks, “I dance around, make faces, and wildly pantomime in hopes of getting my meaning across.” Here she does. theater / The Yes Men by Steve Lambert
First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation. This issue is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. The Artists on Artists Series is sponsored by the W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.
BOMB Supporters include Foundation 2021, the Andy Warhol Arts Writing Initiative, The Thanksgiving Fund, and BOMB’s Trustees.
With cheap suits and utopian agendas, the Yes Men invade business conferences and the television newsroom posing as politicians and corporate spokesmen. It’s agitprop for a new age, played out in real life. MUSIC / Pauline Oliveros by Cory Arcangel
84 BOMB (ISSN 0743–3204) (USPS #773–130) is published March, June, September, and December for $22.00 per year by:
Oliveros is a perpetual pioneer, of electronic music, the use of technology, telematics, and sonic awareness—or, as she terms it—Deep Listening. Film / Matthew Buckingham by Josiah McElheny
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Buckingham’s film-based projects focus more on our contemporary reading of historical events than on imagining an ultimately irretrievable past. Their aim: to engage viewers in actively creating the present.
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BOMB is indexed in Humanities International Complete. The entire contents of BOMB and bombsite.com are copyright © 2009 by New Art Publications, Inc., and may not be reproduced in any manner, either in whole or in part, without written permission from the publisher. All rights are reserved. BOMB SUBSCRIPTIONS To order, call 866–354–0334 Subscription Department P. O. Box 23024 Jackson, MS 39225–3024 One year/four issues PLUS one free US: $22.00 Canadian: $30.00 International: $42.00
MAR 31 6:30 PM
APR 2 6:30 PM
Katy Grannan, Dennis Hopper, and Annie Proulx imagine the American West
Dinh Q. Lê talks about memories of Vietnam
APR 7 6:30 PM
APR 14 6:30 PM
Artists, critics, and Martin Kippenberger’s friends interview each other
MAY 11 7:00 PM
Aernout Mik questions the nature of reality
… and more at MoMA.org/thinkmodern
Art critics think about the tangled alphabets of León Ferrari and Mira Schendel
Conversations with Contemporary Artists are made possible by an endowment established by The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art. Modern Mondays is made possible by Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro. Additional support is provided by The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art.
Katy Grannan. Nicole, Crissy Field Parking Lot (I) (detail). 2006. Pigmented inkjet print. MoMA. Acquired through the generosity of the Cornelius N. Bliss Memorial Fund. © 2009 Katy Grannan. Dennis Hopper. Double Standard (detail). 1961. Gelatin silver print. MoMA. Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr. Fund. Image courtesy Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York. © 2009 Dennis Hopper. Dinh Q. Lê. Untitled (movie grid). 2003. Cut-and-woven chromogenic color prints and linen tape. MoMA. Purchased with funds provided by The Buddy Taub Foundation, Dennis A. Roach, Director. © 2009 Dinh Q. Lê. León Ferrari. Planet. 1979. Stainless steel. Courtesy of the artist. © 2009 Fundación Augusto y León Ferrari. Archivo y Colección. Mira Schendel. Untitled from the series Droguinhas. 1972. Paper. Collection of Diane and Bruce Halle. © 2009 Mira Schendel Estate. Martin Kippenberger in Venice, Italy, 1996. Photo © E. Semotan. Aernout Mik. Middlemen. 2001. Single-screen installation. Courtesy of Projectile, New York. © 2009 Aernout Mik
THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART MoMA.ORG/THINKMODERN (212) 708 9781
BOMB BOMB STAFF PUBLISHER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Betsy Sussler ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER Mary-Ann Monforton SENIOR EDITOR Mónica de la Torre MANAGING EDITOR Nick Stillman DIRECTOR OF MARKETING & SPECIAL PROJECTS Paul W. Morris CIRCULATION DIRECTOR The Mag Consortium: Laura Howard WEB MANAGER Ben Handzo CREATIVE DIRECTOR, ONLINE SPONSORSHIPS David Goodman CIRCULATION & DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATE Alexis Boehmler EDITORIAL ASSISTANT Lena Valencia ART DIRECTION & DESIGN Everything Studio Special Projects: Abby Goldstein FINANCIAL CONSULTANT Howard Seligman WEB CONSULTANTS Fred Krughoff Rick Frankel BOARD OF TRUSTEES Tim Nye, Chairman Cary Brown-Epstein Paul Cantor Rosemary Carroll Frances Dittmer Eric Fischl Klaus Kertess Heather Kirby Michèle Gerber Klein Edward Tyler Nahem George Negroponte Ellen Phelan Betsy Sussler BOARD OF ADVISERS Gabriella De Ferrari Andrew Fierberg Alexander S.C. Rower David Salle Melissa Sandor Ira Silverberg Madeline Weinrib INTERNS Mary Dwan, Aziz Friedrich, Richard Goldstein, Britnee King, Sage Savage, Shoshana Shmuluvitz, Himali Soin. Video Editing & Production: Courtney Nicolson. READERS Michael J. Andrews Katherine Gleason
PROOFREADERS Georgia Cool Nicole Steinberg CONTRIBUTING EDITORS ART EDITOR Saul Ostrow ART Tina Barney, Ross Bleckner, Cecily Brown, Adam Fuss, Joe Fyfe, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Philip Glahn, Abby Goldstein, Stuart Horodner, Anthony Huberman, Judy Hudson, David Humphrey, Roberto Juarez, Jordan Kantor, Shirley Kaneda, Nell McClister, Jennifer Liese, Amanda Means, Olu Oguibe, Bruce Pearson, Lucy Raven, Clifford Ross, and Mimi Thompson ARCHITECTURE EDITOR Carlos Brillembourg ARCHITECTURE Diana Agrest, Deborah Gans, Donald Shillingburg FILM AND THEATER Jon Robin Baitz, Liza Bear, Lawrence Chua, Leon Falk, Guy Gallo, Bette Gordon, Carlos Gutiérrez, Linda Hoaglund, Romulus Linney, Craig Lucas, Mark Magill, Richard Maxwell, Evangeline Morphos, Susan Shacter, and Paula Vogel MUSIC David Byrne, Anthony Coleman, David Krasnow, George Lewis, Alan Licht, Mike McGonigal, Tim Nye, Vernon Reid, Marc Ribot, Ned Sublette, Julia Wolfe, and John Zorn WRITING Esther Allen, Robert Antoni, Deborah Baker, Tom Bolt, Carmen Boullosa, Edwidge Danticat, Deborah Eisenberg, Daniel Flores y Ascencio, Alan Gilbert, Francisco Goldman, Kimiko Hahn, Matthea Harvey, John Haskell, Amy Hempel, A.M. Homes, Patricia Spears Jones, Rachel Kushner, Jonathan Lethem, Jaime Manrique, Patrick McGrath, Brian McMullen, Mary Morris, Silvana Paternostro, Caryl Phillips, Robert Polito, Minna Proctor, Francine Prose, John Phillip Santos, Daniel Shapiro, Rone Shavers, Nicole Steinberg, Lynne Tillman, Colm Tóibín, Frederic Tuten, and Benjamin Weissman EDITORS AT LARGE Gary Indiana and Glenn O’Brien CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHERS Adam Bartos, Sarah Charlesworth, Sally Gall, Nan Goldin, Ben Handzo, Aric Mayer, Elliot Schwartz, Kate Simon, and William Wegman PRINTER WestCan Printing Group, Printed in Canada
contributors Cory Arcangel
Cory Arcangel works with video, installation, composition, sculpture, print, the web, and mathematics. He is cofounder of the Beige Programming Ensemble, and his art has been included in the Whitney Biennial and in venues such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Migros Museum in Zurich. His projects can be found online at beigerecords.com/cory.
A.M. Homes is the author of nine books, most recently the memoir The Mistress’s Daughter and the novel This Book Will Save Your Life. She has collaborated with artists such as Bill Owens, Catherine Opie, Carroll Dunham, Rachel Whiteread, and with Eric Fischl on his forthcoming book Beach Paintings. She writes frequently on photography. (Photo: Marion Ettlinger.)
Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown, The Sleeping Father, and Nothing Is Terrible. He has taught creative writing and literature at Wesleyan University, Columbia University, in the Bard College MFA program, and in New York City public schools. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, The Los Angeles Times, Art on Paper, and elsewhere. (Photo: Betsy Seder.) Tod Williams and Billie Tsien
Cecily Brown is a painter who lives in New York and was born in London. In addition to several solo exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery, she has had exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, the Reina Sofía in Madrid, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (Photo: Sidney Felsen, 2004.)
Steve Lambert is an artist based in Brooklyn. A Senior Fellow at Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in New York, Lambert teaches at Parsons/The New School and Hunter College. (Photo: Cynthia Yardley.) Josiah McElheny
Andrei Codrescu’s new book is The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess (Princeton University Press, April 2009). He writes poetry, novels, and essays, is a commentator on National Public Radio, and edits the online journal Exquisite Corpse. (Photo: Brian Baiamonte.)
Josiah McElheny is an artist living and working in New York. His most recent exhibition, A Space for an Island Universe, based on the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant and astrophysicist Andrei Linde, opened at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid in January. It included his third cinematic work, Island Universe, which was shot on location at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien founded TWBT Architects in 1986. Current work includes the Asia Society in Hong Kong, the Barnes Foundation’s Art Education Center in Philadelphia, a center for creative and performing arts at the University of Chicago, and an IT campus in Mumbai. Tsien is a director of the Public Art Fund and of the Architectural League of New York. Their monograph Work/Life was released in 2000 by Monacelli Press. (Photo: Konrad Fiedler.)
LEADERS $40,000 and over Andy Warhol Arts Writing Initiative Foundation 20 21, Sustaining SPONSORS $20,000 to $39,999 Eric Fischl Heather M. Kirby Bertha & Isaac Liberman Foundation, Inc. National Endowment for the Arts New York City Department of Cultural Affairs New York State Council on the Arts Alexander S.C. Rower The Thanksgiving Fund
BOMB Celebrates its 28th Year For some time now, even before the economic crisis engulfed us all, we at BOMB have been thinking about how to bring our scrappy, collaborative, and maverick past with us into our future. (Yes, I’m reclaiming the word maverick; it used to mean a rebel thinker and doer, willing to live a life outside the status quo. It still does.) In 1981, we subsidized BOMB with a $3,000 loan, but it was really started by the enthusiasm of New York’s downtown art community, and the hard-won vision that through developing outspoken conversations between artists, this magazine could be revelatory in nature. Artists and writers volunteered their time, their money, and their work to make that happen. Since then, BOMB has changed the public discourse: the artist’s voice is now an innate part of curricula, publications, and museum panels all over the country. This was not always the case. Artists were not deemed to be the appropriate interpreters of their own works; the authors of their own tales. Now they are. BOMB has stuck to its mandate for 28 years. We have learned how to best pair artists from all fields so that they are comfortable enough for an intimacy to emerge, but also challenged so that surprising insights might evolve. Through collaboration, we transform the spoken word into an elegant text that retains its vernacular. Before Mark Magill and Michael McClard designed the first issue of BOMB, Sarah Charlesworth and I were sitting at her studio desk talking about how we wanted it to look—a rebel with a past. Artists have daily conversations with those who have preceded them; we walk with the dead, they live in art. Artists also make work meant to breach that past and redefine our future. How best to visually portray that dichotomy, and juxtapose the cacophony of voices that made up the chaotic whole of downtown’s ethos? This was on our minds last fall, when we gave our new designers, Jessica Green and Tom Griffiths of Everything Studio, many of our old issues. We spoke with them at length and they worked through the holidays to come up with an armature that could hold all this and more. I think they got it. Let us know what you think; it’s still evolving, and we want your input. Go to BOMBLog to post your comments. —BETSY SUSSLER, cofounder, editor-in-chief
DONORS $10,000 to $19,999 Bank of America Cary Brown-Epstein & Steve Epstein The W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation Helaine & Paul Cantor Frances Dittmer Family Foundation Andrea & Marc Glimcher, Pace Wildenstein Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Michèle Gerber Klein Dorothy Lichtenstein Tim Nye The Reed Foundation, Americas PUBLISHER’S CIRCLE $5,000 to $9,999 Anonymous Pamela Joseph & Robert Brinker Neil Grayson Mary Heilmann Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation Jennifer McSweeney Gregory R. Miller Edward T. Nahem Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Americas Lief D. Rosenblatt David Teiger Thea Westreich & Ethan Wagner PUBLISHER’S COUNCIL $2,500 to $4,999 The Daniel and Estrellita Brodsky Family Foundation, Americas Chatham Importers, Inc. Marie Douglas-David & George David Pat Steir & Joost Elffers Empire Merchants Anthony Grant Nicole Klagsbrun Ursula & Paul Lowerre Minagawa Art Lines Pannonia Foundation Mimi Thompson & James Rosenquist Betsy & Clifford Ross Agnes Gund & Daniel Shapiro Karin Waisman & Carlos Brillembourg, Archive Madeline Weinrib PATRONS $1,000 to $2,499 Ann & Steven Ames Anonymous Claudia Aronow
Amy Cohen Banker Adam Bartos Rosemary Carroll Jennifer Clifford Danner & William Danner Jane & James Cohan Jane & John Comfort Ina Chadwick & Richard Epstein Frances Dittmer Giuliana Bruno & Andrew Fierberg Frayda & Ronald Feldman Laurie Fitch Janis Gardner Cecil Linda and Anthony Grant Donna Green Tom Healy & Fred P. Hochberg RoseLee Goldberg & Dakota Jackson Cecily Kahn & David Kapp Ada & Alex Katz Tina Kim Gallery Jeremy Dine & Jacob Lewis Amalia Dayan & Adam Lindemann Carmine D. Boccuzzi & Bernard Lumpkin Christina Weiss Lurie Paula Cooper & Jack Macrae Sylvia Plimack Mangold & Robert Mangold Iris Z. Marden Jan Hashey & Yasuo Minagawa Julie & Edward J. Minskoff Paul Morris Laura Kirk & Joel Niedfeldt David Nolan Coleen Fitzgibbon & Tom Otterness Gabriella Palmieri Tricia Williams & Peder Regan Agnes Gund & Daniel Shapiro Elizabeth Shaoul Adam Sheffer Adam Shopkorn & Carolyn Angel Brent Sikkema, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Lisa Spellman Michael Werner Gallery BENEFACTORS $500 to $999 Frances Beatty Adler Cecily Brown Susan Dunne Rebecca & Martin Eisenberg Arlene Shechet & Mark Epstein Joan & George Hornig Jennifer Coates & David Humphrey Christine H. Kang Jill & Peter Kraus Kenneth S. Kuchin Steven Learner Elizabeth LeCompte Anne Livet Francine Hunter McGivern Virva Hinnemo & George Negroponte Nancy Delman Portnoy Donna & Benjamin Rosen David Salle Jack Shainman Gallery Cindy Sherman Philip Lyford Sussler Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia Coke Anne M. Wilcox FRIENDS $250 to $499 Constance & Thomas Bruce Ellyn & Saul Dennison Joe Fyfe Anthony McCall Ira P. Silverberg Jeanette Watson Sanger Andrew Weinstein
bomb bomb’s ARCHIVE PROJECT BOMB expresses its deep gratitude to the following donors for supporting the digitization of BOMB’s archival interviews—over 900 and counting—free on BOMBsite.com. This is a work in progress, to be completed by spring 2009. New York State Council on the Arts: Eric Fischl Heather Kirby Cary Brown-Epstein Paul Cantor For information on how to become a donor, contact Betsy Sussler at 718-636-9100 x 103. bomb PRINT CLUB The following artists generously donated their talent to the BOMB Print Club. Steve DiBenedetto Joanne Greenbaum Sharon Harper Oliver Herring Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle Paul Pfeiffer Brian Tolle To purchase a print or become a member of the BOMB Print Club, please contact Mary-Ann Monforton at 718-636-9100 x 105. bomb Portrait project The following artists generously donated their talent to the BOMB Portrait Project. Robert Polidori Laurie Simmons William Wegman
bomb gala BOMB extends heartfelt thanks to the artists who generously donated work to BOMB’s 27th Anniversary Silent Auction and Gala Benefit, 2008: Marina Adams Mamma Andersson Polly Apfelbaum Joseph Bartscherer Jennifer Bolande Chris Caccamise Ingrid Calame Don Christensen Jennifer Clifford Danner Steve DiBenedetto Peter Doig Ellen Driscoll Nancy Dwyer Rochelle Feinstein Hermine Ford Rachel Foullon Adam Fuss Paul Gabrielli Anita Glesta Cao Guimarães Ellen Harvey Craig Hein Adam Helms Oliver Herring Klara Hobza Cannon Hudson Judy Hudson Isaac Julien Steve Keister Zilvinas Kempinas Paul Lee Jill Levine Pam Lins Chris Martin Sarah McDougald Kohn Julie Mehretu Marilyn Minter Robert Moskowitz Ernesto Neto Chris Ofili Paulina Olowska Gabriel Orozco Richard Pare Ellen Phelan Taro Suzuki Joel Shapiro Keith Sonnier Billy Sullivan Tris Vonna-Michell Kara Walker Lawrence Weiner James Welling Stephen Westfall Stanley Whitney Martin Wilner Krzysztof Wodiczko Andrzej Zielinski
BOMB Magazine 28 th Anniversary Gala Benefit & Silent Auction Friday, April 17, 2009 The National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South Honoring Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed Alanna Heiss Laurie Simmons & Carroll Dunham Silent Auction of over 60 Works of art by renowned and emerging artists, including: Tony Fitzpatrick Rachel Harrison Mary Heilmann Alfredo Jaar Guillermo Kuitca Kalup Linzy Josephine Meckseper Marilyn Minter Roxy Paine Peter Saul Richard SerRa Cindy Sherman James Siena Nancy Spero Catherine Sullivan Lawrence Weiner BOMB Artists Draw: 14 acclaimed artists create 25 drawings exclusively for BOMB’s 28th Anniversary Benefit, including: Eric Fischl, Adam Helms, David Salle, Billy Sullivan, and Kara Walker. Each $250 Artists Draw ticket purchased guarantees a 3 x 5 inch
signed drawing. Gala attendance is not required. For tickets to the Gala and for Artists Draw tickets, call Kate Montague at Livet Reichard Company at 212.868.8450 x205 or visit www.bombsite.com/gala
John From Cincinnati HBO Home Video In 1978, activist and former ad executive Jerry Mander published the book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Among the many enduring relevancies in his invective against corporate manipulation and TV, he wrote: “Facts concerning the moon are better television than poetry concerning the moon. Any facts work better than any poetry.” Maybe that explains why HBO cancelled John from Cincinnati one day after its first-season finale. Created by Deadwood’s David Milch and novelist Kem Nunn, the series begins with the mysterious arrival of John Monad (Austin Nichols) in ruinous Imperial Beach, California. John’s presence initiates a chain of miracles, rallying a family of surfers tossed asunder by monstrous failure and heartbreak—the proverbial big waves of life. Archetypes of misery and vice— porn queen, dope fiend, control freak, pedophile—no character is denied the hand of redemption. For each, the future promises to forgive the past . . . with the help of John’s “father.” It never becomes entirely clear who or what John’s father is—much less what John himself is—but they sure as hell aren’t from Cincinnati. The unique source of salvation in the show is its language. Now available on DVD, John From Cincinnati brilliantly combines theological chatter, hysterical profanity, surf lingo, and border town slang. John’s speech is largely confined to mimicry, and his parroting expands the series’ possibilities for communicating
history and developing narrative. Contra Mander’s charge, John from Cincinnati is more poetry than facts. The search for its meaning requires patience and persistence, something that unfortunately alienated more than it inspired. Perhaps most of all, it demands acceptance—that not all will be resolved or precisely understood after a single viewing. Thankfully, HBO’s DVD box set allows for a second and third, plus a little extra help from its manic mastermind, David Milch. —Cameron Shaw is a critic and fiction-writer based in Brooklyn. FM3’s Buddha Machine 2.0
If you want to get acquainted with the paradox of ambient music, you could do worse than setting a Buddha Machine on your desk, flipping the switch, and going about your business. Brian Eno famously
said ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting” and this tiny box, warmly buzzing with analog sounds, both demands your attention and threatens to slip into the background. The Buddha Machine 2.0 is a small plastic box that plays repeating loops of “ambient” music. Its looks and sound quality will remind you of a transistor radio. The tracks cut across a wide swath of ambient music styles, from drifty Fennesz-like drones to tense, rising swells that sound like Cliff Martinez scoring a Steven Soderbergh film. The craft that Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant of the Beijing-based electronic music duo FM3 put into the compositions—and design of the box itself—rewards close attention, ensuring that the machine won’t suffer the fate of another forgotten gizmo. The updated 2.0 version contains nine loops in total but a practically endless series of permutations; the device has a pitch control. This feature allows the user to speed up or slow down the sounds like a thumb-sliding beat mixer, which begs the very 21st-century question, “Is the Buddha Machine a record or an instrument?” The best ambient music straddles a fine line between background music and thoughtful experience design, and that’s exactly what makes a $25 plastic box of loops so compelling in an age when everyone already has 5,000 songs in their pockets. —Timothy Boyd works in user experience and publishes Ambient Music Blog (ambientmusicblog. com). He lives in Brooklyn. Scott Walker: 30 Century Man Oscilloscope Films “I have a very nightmarish imagination and I’ve had very bad dreams all my life—so everything in my world is very big.” So claims the songwriter Scott Walker, né Noel Scott Engel, in Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. An exercise in both demystification and hagiography, Kijak’s film takes us inside Walker’s nightmare world during the 2006 recording of The Drift. Introduced by way of a frantically erected wooden box and a frozen slab of beef—all instruments in Walker’s sonic lexicon—the musician furtively appears before the camera in a chiaroscuro of studio dimmers, his face hidden beneath a worn baseball cap. A great mystery, it seems, is about to unfold. For those unfamiliar with Walker’s tumultuous career, the film returns to its rise and fall. Beginning as the moptopped bassist for the ’60s band the Walker Brothers, Walker quickly rejected
Editor’s choice confectionary pop and transformed into a benighted miserablist crooner. His subsequent foray into solo work produced the acclaimed album series Scott 1–4. Unimpressed by the trappings of fame, Walker receded into professional exile in the early ’70s. But his songwriting aesthetic— a combinatory homage to Jacques Brel, Ingmar Bergman, and Bertolt Brecht—would have an immeasurable influence on British pop for decades. His lyrical musings, at once sensual and eschatological, proved to be the zenith of the singer-songwriter era. “Window lights for wanderers / Hide hard in your swollen eyes / Echoes of laughter / Hide in the cities thighs / Love catch these fragments / Swirling through the winds of night,” he sings in 1969’s “Boy Child.” As if to prove the point, Kijak plays a sampling of Scott records to fans Brian Eno, David Bowie (executive producer of the film), Jarvis Cocker, and Johnny Marr, who gush about Walker’s melancholic genius. Would there have been a Bowie or an Eno, a Pulp or The Smiths, without Scott 1-4? Yes, of course, the film rhetorically implies,
above: Still from Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Films.
below: Page from Lutz Bacher’s SMOKE (Gets in Your Eyes). Courtesy of Regency Arts Press.
but they would not have been so, well, Walker-like. In spite of the attention Kijak pays to Walker’s increasingly experimental production techniques since his rediscovery in the late ’90s, it is still his voice that truly mystifies. After a career of nearly 40 years, most of which was spent in England, the Ohio-born Walker retains the lulling sibilance of a Midwesterner. And his petite, feminine mien, besmirched only slightly by age, continues to belie the thunderous, nearly operatic, reverberations that pour from his body when he sings. —Erik Morse’s Memphis Underground: A Situationist Atlas of the Bluff City, written with musician/filmmaker Tav Falco, will be published by Creation Books next year. Lutz Bacher’s Smoke (Gets in Your Eyes) Regency Arts Press, Ltd., 2008 For those unfamiliar with Lutz Bacher’s work—or Lutz Bacher the person—her new artist’s book SMOKE (Gets In Your Eyes) recreates some of the many strange moments in the career and life of the Berkeley-based artist . . . and in the world at large. SMOKE compiles Bacher’s quotes and various ephemera, Xeroxed reproductions of her artwork (which is largely appropriated), redacted emails, excerpts from interviews with and by the artist, and assorted news clippings. Some of these pieces will likely be included in Bacher’s spring retrospective at PS1, but encountering them in book form affords the advantage of repeated viewing. SMOKE lends itself both to quick flipping and slow study. A brief glance reveals fractious disorientation. A longer look and the reader assembles a narrative not just throughout the pages, but also applicable to Bacher herself. However, by including everything—personal notes, dream diaries, sketches, appropriated imagery— Bacher makes it impossible for the reader to conclude anything about her identity. Instead, the sprawling compendium of personal and impersonal information translates her appropriative work into a collective collage. Bacher raises the key semiotic issue we face today: How is meaning assembled from fragmentary information? Throughout SMOKE Bacher attempts to understand her own identity, and the reader follows along with a similar curiosity. Her quest to understand herself mirrors the social networks’ fraught abilities to construct their users’ identities. Spend an hour with the book
and then open up Facebook, Word, Twitter, your email, your RSS reader, nytimes.com, Reddit, Perez Hilton, Wikipedia. Then remember the feeling of trying to figure out who Lutz Bacher is, and why she put this glut of personal ephemera together the way she did. —Ben Handzo is a New York based photographer, BOMB’s Web Content Manager, and the creator and editor of the BOMBLog. The Marfa Sessions: Sounds Across Town Ballroom Marfa Marfa is arguably the most enigmatic small town in America. It has served as Hollywood film set, strategic border town, and art-world nexus. Its unique history is celebrated in The Marfa Sessions: Sounds across Town. Radiating from Ballroom Marfa, the exhibition permeates the town, incorporating distal sites such as Fidel Vizcaino Park, areas of ranchland, a billboard, the Marfa Book Company, and even the local airwaves. Nina Katchadourian’s The Marfa Jingles, broadcast on KRTS Marfa Public Radio, praises beloved local institutions including the Rotary Club, Broom Shop, Foodshark, and the mysterious Marfa Lights. The Jingles can also be heard from a listening post at Ballroom Marfa or purchased as an album. Katchadourian is one of the six artists in the exhibition commissioned by its three curators— Regine Basha, Rebecca Gates, and Lucy Raven—to make site-specific sound art for their polyphonic portrait. Deborah Stratman and Steven Badgett’s Caballos de Vigilancia consists of three sculptures of dead horses that also function as listening posts for sounds which allude to town patriarch Donald Judd’s Scottish heritage as well as the local history of border patrol surveillance. Similarly, Kaffe Matthews’s Sonic Bed_Marfa, a bed
left: Nina Katchadourian recording The Marfa Jingles, 2008. Audio broadcast and CD Commissioned by Ballroom
built from wood salvaged from the town, serves as cocoon for a tonal soundscape also derived from locally recorded sounds. The Marfa Sessions expands the notion of site-specificity from visible to audible space and negotiates the enigmas and peculiarities not only of Marfa but of sound itself. It emphasizes sound’s unique ability to transcend time and space and the paradox by which it can be both intensely mnemonic and a stimulus to new experience. As a portrait, The Marfa Sessions, as clearly defined as it is ephemeral, as comfortable as Satie’s furniture music, unflinchingly offers up sound not as document but as dialectic. —Victoria Miguel is a writer based in New York.
major player. Stage directions, fiercely independent on little italic islands, acquire a new kind of demonic authority. Jennie Richee is disguised as an epic poem, with speech headings and italics banished completely. Stage directions and utterance mingle democratically in an undifferentiated flow of roman text. It’s printed like a wedding invitation, with each line individually centered and stanzas occasionally separated by a squiggle. On the page it looks like an alien organism, bulging and narrowing its way down. Antigone is a rigid centered column, its left and right edges straight as razors. When a character breaks into song, threatening to fracture the text’s rectangular shape, the verses are printed block style, with slashes where line breaks belong. I love these strange indicators that presumably have no theatrical purpose (were they in the original rehearsal scripts?): pure innovations in that fascinatingly demented art form, the printed play. Are these oddities meant to goad the director into action? Or are they there for mysterious book-only purposes, exerting their secret influence as a reader attempts to envision Wellman’s textual conundrums? —Scott Shepherd is a member of The Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service.
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field by Mac Wellman University of Minnesota Press, 2008 I didn’t grow up going to the theater, so plays for me were instructions for imagining (or also, I gathered, enacting) bizarre performance events, and curious printing practices that had arisen to reproduce this unwieldy information. I understood drama primarily in terms of layout and typographical convention. I knew Samuel Beckett was advanced because his speech headings floated out in the left margin and his terse stage directions appeared as modern-looking italics in casual round parentheses. Crusty old G.B. Shaw’s directions came in long strings of ornate italics imprisoned in stern square brackets. Shakespeare? Forget it! [Exeunt, with an unclosed bracket and merciless truncations of even the shortest character names (Iag for Iago).] Mac Wellman’s new book of plays, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, forges new ground in this peculiar form of print content. White space is a
Marfa. Photo: Fred Covarrubias Jr.
right: Production photo of Mac Wellman’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, 2002. Julia Migenes as Mrs. Williamson
with Anika Noni Rose as Virginia Creeper. Courtesy of the American Conservatory Theater.
Editor’s choice Serpentina Satélite, Nothing to Say World in Sound/Trip in Time, 2008
Springs, New York. He currently teaches in the English department at Skidmore College. The Straits by Kristin Palm Palm Press, 2008
The soothing Andean panpipe and the plaintive folk tune “El Condor Pasa”—these are the stereotypes associated with Peruvian music culture—stereotypes that the Lima-based ensemble Serpentina Satélite crushes with a weighty psychedelic attack. The swirling psychedelic cover of the band’s largely instrumental new album Nothing to Say doesn’t bode well for Serpentina Satélite’s visual aesthetic, but the record’s five monolithic tracks immediately allay any doubts about their tastefulness. Rippling with crystalline guitar textures, the nine-minute “Nueva Ola” slowly works in building drum patterns that move to the fore by the halfway mark and don’t relent until the number’s pummeling finale. If that song is partially steeped in reverence for space-rock pioneers Hawkwind, then the title track, “The Last Drop,” and “Madripoor” venture down the metallic branch of that British act’s musical family tree, as Serpentina guitarists Renato Gómez and Dolmo temper moody moments with hard-charging Motörheadlike surges. Clocking in at more than 23 minutes, the final track of Nothing to Say, “Kommune 1,” opens with a tremendous sonic fury that eventually dissipates into little more than reverb. Just when Serpentina Satélite has lulled its audience into submission, it unfurls more searing six-string passages, jamming with wild abandon until the piece drifts off into oblivion. The title of Nothing to Say isn’t quite literal—the echo-laden voice of a Spanish-speaking child chimes in on the first and last tracks, enhancing the foreboding mystical bent of the album. Less successfully, band members occasionally sing and offer up spokenword passages in both Spanish and English. However, these moments ultimately do little to detract from the sheer force of Serpentina’s formidable riffs and rhythms, which place the group as the band to watch in South America’s heavy-rock scene. —Eric Schneider is a freelance writer and editor based in Saratoga
semblance of integrity can only exist in the mind—one aware of the possibilities for poetry to mine the holes that hubris has left in its wake. After reading Palm’s book, it’s impossible not to sense that behind the stories of vehicles on their not-quite-planned path to obsolescence—take the quasi-mythical Dodge Viper muscle car or the brawny Ram pickup, for instance—lurk all the elements for a classic Greek drama to repeat itself. —Mónica de la Torre is a poet and senior editor at BOMB. A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck Random House, 2009
“Vocal Executive Chides Critics of Detroit” reads a recent New York Times headline, confirming a synecdoche firmly engrained in the American imagination substituting industry for place. Kristin Palm’s first book of poems, The Straits, delves into Detroit’s tumultuous history revealing that, even before the Big Three, this indicative entwinement of territory and business was already the norm. Natural place names seem to be scarce in Detroit, except for the city’s name itself, which is French for “straits.” One of the poems in the book traces the origin of the city’s street names—“(grand boulevards emanating / like the spokes of an elaborate wheel)”—attributing a majority of them to landowners and to those legally entitled to apportion the land: “Bates, named for Frederick Bates, one of the first Territorial Judges (1831) […] Crawford, named for real estate dealer Francis Crawford (1852).” Palm’s rhapsody of Detroit covers the arrival of French settlers, their battles with the English, the great fire of 1805, the recurring race riots, and the auto industry’s takeover and ensuing desertion of the city. Weaving bits of her own personal history, she reminds readers that: “Cadillac is an explorer, the town where my grandparents met a motor car / Pontiac is an Ottawa chief, the location of the Silverdome a motorcar / Ford is a man, a freeway a motorcar . . . .” If her premise is reminiscent of Williams Carlos Williams’s Paterson, her approach to the subject differs significantly from his. Williams acknowledged to have been “thinking of writing a long poem upon the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city.” Palm stoically casts aside that identification. In the wasteland that Detroit has become, a
Since Victor Frankenstein first conjured the monster that assumed his surname in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, his harrowing creation has assumed countless incarnations. Now, poet Laurie Sheck imagines her own daring version in the narrative prose piece A Monster’s Notes—a bold and elegant revision of the classic tale. Sheck’s version opens with this radical premise: what if Mary Shelley had never invented Frankenstein’s monster at all? What if he were still alive in the 21st century? Divided into sections to honor the various points of view of several characters, the book begins with the monster’s voice as he takes notes from myriad sources before escaping north. Other personages waft through the story: Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley’s half-sister who had a child by Lord Byron and was pressured to give her up), Henry Clerval (Sheck reimagines Victor Frankenstein’s boyhood friend as a translator of the Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber), and mistress Shelley herself. Particularly compelling is the use of excerpts from manuscripts and facsimile editions of the Frankenstein notebooks, many of which Sheck had access to as a fellow at the New York Public Library. Just as Victor stitched together his beloved monster, Sheck has collaged assorted texts, and
Editor’s choice the result is an intellectually thrilling, stunningly original tale. Readers of Sheck’s earlier books know of her penchant for myth, and, in her recent collections, a jagged means of capturing thought. In the genrebending and vast undertaking that is A Monster’s Notes she pursues the potentially unattainable answer to an eternal question: How does the mind find freedom? —Kimiko Hahn is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently The Narrow Road to the Interior (W.W. Norton), and she teaches in the MFA Program at Queens College, City University of New York. La Medusa by Vanessa Place FC2/ University of Alabama Press, 2008
Los Angeles is distinctive for its magic hour; that time of day when the sun is teasing the horizon. The memoirist D.J. Waldie has described the quality of this light as “somehow simultaneously particularized and idealized: each perfect, specific, ideal little tract house, one beside the next.” Writers from Nathanael West to Steve Erickson have struggled to capture the peculiarity of the golden land, most often through narratives of Hollywood. But Hollywood’s stories aren’t like Los Angeles’s; outwardly projecting, linear, they rarely articulate the interiorized, centerless nature of LA, experienced in the isolation of its cars and houses. With her immense multivocal novel La Medusa, Vanessa Place mimics this fragmentary city in form and content, that “one beside the next,” through literary collage—voices of television shows, screenplays, and medical books juxtaposed with the intimate narratives of a rebellious young girl, a doctor performing infant cranial surgery, a corpse accounting for his own death, and a truck driver on the road with his wife. These characters travel in cars and semis, on freeways and boulevards, through Silverlake and Beverly Hills,
Venice Beach and the Mojave Desert. An appellate attorney, small-press cofounder, and writer, Place is an expert ventriloquist, like the trucker’s wife, “sounds of other folk cling to her like smoke on skin.” The novel’s voices are likewise distinct and overlapping, some in framed boxes, accompanied by anatomical illustrations and billboard ads and given headings that indicate their location in the city and their coordinates in the narrative. Medusa herself presents the ultimate problem of representation. “An epic begins with a look in the mirror,” the novel reminds us, “that casts & cements the gaze of you as others see you.” The title then refers both to the city, “a cluster-fuck, this coralled thing, a series of conjoined colonies, a city with no downtown,” and the novel, “the chaptering and concentration of unrelated but adjacent segments.” La Medusa may run long, but so does LA, and like its city, it can be read in fits and starts or in one continuous looping. Ultimately, La Medusa is a surprising success—a bold experiment in the novel form and a welcome addition to the canon of Los Angeles literature. —Stefanie Sobelle writes about contemporary literature and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson Harper Perennial, 2009 Livability by Jon Raymond Bloomsbury USA, 2008 Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, a debut collection of stories by Kevin Wilson, turns the genre of Southern fiction on its head. In the vein of Steven Millhauser, Wilson’s characters confront mundane problems in offbeat situations: an inheritance is decided by a complex game involving electric fans and origami birds; recent college grads avoid the “real world” by creating a network of tunnels under their neighborhood; and—in what could have been lifted from a Jan Svankmajer animation—the scandal of an extramarital affair is overshadowed by the couple’s grotesque baby, who was born with a full set of sharp, sparkling white teeth. Wilson creates nightmarish hyper-realities by literalizing familiar metaphors, like a 12-year-old whose love is so fiery that he actually ignites himself in an attempt to woo an older girl. While his bizarre plots can occasionally become distracting, Wilson’s fully realized characters keep the stories grounded. Jon Raymond’s Livability focuses
on the Pacific Northwest, birthplace of grunge, and a haven for freegans, couch surfers, and vagabonds. Coscreenwriter of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (the short stories that the films were based on both appear in this collection), Raymond conceals political observations beneath layers of drama: a dinner party quip about the unburstable real estate bubble or an offhand anecdote about evacuating a hurricane-flooded apartment serve as simmering backdrops. Raymond’s characters are constantly at odds with past lives or struggling to create a better future: a Russian teenager who has stolen from Express’s register spends an awkward drunken night hiding with a coworker in the store and finds peace in an early morning Tai Chi class; a screenwriter finally pays attention to his daughter when he stops agonizing over a potentially life-changing call from an agent. Though his characters are often in tenuous situations, Raymond steers away from portraying them as victims. No matter how realistic or hyperrealistic their settings may be, these collections feature characters longing futilely to evade the present, whether by escaping into the comfort of a past relationship, the prospect of a better career, or the quiet, cold soil beneath their neighbors’ homes. —Lena Valencia is assistant editor of BOMB.
ART / Jacqueline Humphries By Cecily Brown
It’s a relatively limited type of adjective that clings to recent abstract painting: intricate, quiet, lyrical, seductive, mysterious, atmospheric. Aggressive doesn’t much come to mind, much less assaultive; hence the fracture between Jacqueline Humphries and the archetypical 21st-century abstractionist. Paintings without content have taken on dubious connotations of overwrought interiority. Humphries’s paintings—whether metallic, phosphorescent, or paradoxically not even there—do the opposite: they put you on the spot. Her silver paintings reflect glaring bursts of light back at the viewer, necessitating a multi-angled tour of the canvas in order to form a complete image of it. With strokes both gestural and hard-edged, the silver paintings are a heap of contradictions: they catcall only to become invisible; their spontaneity is policed by tape. Humphries’s lightbox paintings are made with fluorescent paint on translucent fabric, set within a lightbox, and lit with a black light—sneering X-ray abstractions. These and her paintings on canvas lit by black lights coolly conjure the nocturnal energy of a sweaty danceclub. Recently back from an emotional trip to her hometown of New Orleans, where she showed paintings and—in her words—“non-paintings” in the Prospect.1 Biennial, Humphries is preparing for an April solo show at Greene Naftali. For this interview, Humphries had a series of conversations in her New York City studio with fellow painter Cecily Brown, whose brushstrokes edge toward figuration more than Humphries’s do, but are equally strident and confrontational. Here the two discuss, among other things, whether an abstract-figurative dialectic remains relevant to painting, and how to channel something positive from the destruction of your birthplace. —Nick Stillman
ecily Brown: Let’s talk about how your paintings C discourage stationary viewing. They seem to want to be perceived from multiple points of view. The reflectivity of your silver paintings especially emphasizes the unfixed nature of things; do you think of them as having one preferred point of view? Or does that change as our physical relationship to the painting changes?
JH: I don’t think the artist can determine the meaning of content. What I am trying to do is alter baseline conditions of viewing to anticipate a new kind of viewing, to establish a site for “content” or experience. In a way, the paintings resist meaning.
Jacqueline Humphries: What fascinates me is how little I can control their behavior in new situations. An image will coalesce and then disintegrate, giving way to another reading that sort of comes out of the background. To me some parts of a painting appear as if you’re looking down at them from an airplane window; others might evoke something that you’re very close to which is out of focus, and maybe this is interlaced with forms that feel very distant, and crisper. The objective is to knit wildly varying perspectives into a unified space. Because of the way light reacts to the metallic paint, the paintings change as your physical relationship to them changes. I like the unstable situation that depends on the light and the viewer both moving around; the painting changes before your eyes. They’re impossible to photograph—there’s no “accurate” image. CB: And that destabilization almost becomes the subject or content of the painting. Do you want uncertainty to be the content? previous spread: Detail of an installation in Ideal Auto Repairs for Prospect.1, New Orleans, 2008. Courtesy of the
artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
B: I wouldn’t want to pin it down that much, either. C The more I look at your paintings, it seems like space and light are your subjects.
JH: Yeah, well if you’re painting anything, you’re painting air to some extent. It’s not so much that I’m driving at uncertainty as content as much as I want to captivate and entertain a viewer. I think a painter’s first job is to get someone to look at a painting. Perhaps it’s about motion and light. Having a heightened sense of the painting changing in front of your eyes gives it an almost cinematic quality—light moves across the surface and makes new images before your eyes.
B: In a way, that’s what painting has always done. C A painting shifts and changes as one moves backward and forward; it has from Velásquez to Pollock. If destabilization isn’t your content, it’s at least something that’s always present.
JH: Yes, it is always present; that’s what makes painting so fascinating, that it’s fixed yet in motion. I read you say that somewhere. With the silver paintings, the same part
ART / Jacqueline Humphries will one minute be bright, as if in light, the next dark, as if in shadow. This kind of image behavior is proper to cinema. Any painting looks different on separate viewings, and it forms a kind of composite in your mind: “Today the painting did this, yesterday it did that.” Paintings do behave this way, or rather people do, so I attempted to heighten this sense of mutability.
urgency. There’s a kind of theatricality which may even veer toward the melodramatic. CB: Disruption is an important part in thinking about the works you did in New Orleans for the Prospect.1 Biennial. You had regular three-dimensional paintings hung on the walls alongside paintings that were spray painted directly onto the walls. This must have given viewers a sense of dislocation. At a glance it looked like a room full of paintings, but as you got closer you realized some were not there in the same way. You managed to express your way of thinking about painting as a type of trace. The pieces that were directly on the walls were like shadows or ghosts of paintings.
CB: It’s more like a living thing.
JH: Or something that gives the illusion of being alive. This comes with its own risks: a painting can look really bad sometimes, which I’m willing to accept for the possibility that it’s going to look good at other times. Under normal conditions of viewing, some things are going to excite you and then maybe later the same thing won’t. It’s a very human thing to see a person today and like them; they attract you, but next time maybe they don’t. So you could say that consciousness is built into the actual viewing situation as an aspect of its subject matter.
JH: There’s a play between the paintings and the nonpaintings. I wanted to see if real paintings would behave differently in this space, an auto garage, than if they were simply in a white space with other paintings. I left a trace to point to an absence with the wall paintings. So there’s something there as a way of saying there’s nothing there. It’s almost like the hyperpresence is the paintings themselves, the presence is the room itself, and the absence is those black paintings on the wall that give the sense of the reality of the environment having vanished.
CB: It’s almost like allowing the paintings to be fickle. I’m interested in your use of the word entertainment, by the way. It’s very refreshing. It’s not a word that artists use much—entertainment is usually seen as frivolous. JH: I made a whole series of paintings about cinema screens, cinema space, so I’ve thought a lot about what movies do—how a whole crowd of people will walk into a room and sit in their seats and look at the screen and not confer with each other but devote their attention to the screen with the expectation of being entertained. But there’s no protocol for making people look at paintings. I don’t know if this happens to you, but I can get upset if I have a picture in the room and no one really looks at it. I know it’s greedy and I shouldn’t admit it. Does that happen to you?
CB: Exactly what happened in New Orleans—
JH: Displacement and disappearance. Architecture, of course, is a very important register of the events that occurred. You go there and see how the architecture has been affected, and you think, These were homes, lives happened here. I wanted that context, which is why I chose a space with all the texture and ambiance of New Orleans; it’s decayed, its paint is peeling, it’s old, it’s dirty, it’s soggy, and baked. It’s all those adjectives that characterize the look and feel of the city, before the hurricane and after.
CB: Oh, God, yes, it’s awful! I think that’s why I cling to figuration: it seems more likely that a figural work will get people’s attention. It’s a hook, especially in narrative painting, where people feel included in the action. I would think that when painting in a purely abstract way, if there is such a thing, there’s a danger of not hooking the viewer in the same way. Viewers want to feel that they’re part of the space of the painting. I think you pull that off; there’s a generosity to the space, an almost baroque feeling.
CB: We talked recently about how your new paintings in Prospect.1 had started looking almost figurative. Being from New Orleans, you must have felt so . . . ravaged. JH: Every now and then you see an image in the world that crystallizes so many things for you—a symbolic energy gathers there and says something not just about what it pictures, but about repercussions and implications on a much larger scale. This thing had a global impact.
JH: A complete refusal to depict “real things” forces me to seek other ways of getting you on the hook, of making you feel included in the image or addressed by it. What I’m after is a kind of psychological hook, as if there’s almost suspense or a sense of something wrong. A kind of pictorial distortion. And I pull out those stops, the reflectivity and the disruption, to get across a pressure or
CB: It showed how America neglects its own.
JH: Yeah, it was like a true image; it revealed something. And more particularly, things that I actually saw—a washing machine in a tree or an upside-down car on top of a house—lent an utter transparency to . . . something.
Something that interests me: the feeling of uselessness and waste. So much was expressed just by what you saw on the streets. It gave me a lot of ideas about how I might go about structuring a painting. The crushed houses in the Lower 9th Ward looked very particular but also totally generic. When water pushes a house three blocks down the street, the way the resulting debris sits is both generic and very specific. It doesn’t have to be illustrated in order to be depicted or expressed. I was down there a few months after the storm and took a lot of photographs, none of which came close to expressing what it was really like.
Party on! I had become so used to the precariousness of the city. I never imagined that New Orleans would become this symbol of trauma and neglect … of cruelty, really. I had long thought of New Orleans as still being in a justpost-Civil War era, where all the tensions of Southern history remain, alongside a latent desire for release from those conditions. It always felt to me like a left-behind place. Then suddenly it was really left behind, right there on national television. So it is changed but you have to wonder how the situation could have been addressed differently to really benefit the city, both on a practical and a visionary level. Which also throws a light on the nature of the failure of politics. I mean, where is our Voltaire to put the proper spin on this? We’re the city that care forgot.
CB: New Orleans is your childhood, your home. I wonder how this is going to affect you over time. It sounds kind of cold, but as a painter, you can take this and use it.
CB: It seems like your installation dealt with it in a very eloquent way. It felt melancholic without being melodramatic. The ghost paintings where the bricks are showing through—it’s a very clear way of talking about something that could have been sentimental.
JH: Yeah, in the way that Goya channeled things that he saw and elaborated on them. We have to think about how what we do is open to the world. There was a readiness in Goya’s imagination to receive these things. Similarly, when you grow up in New Orleans, people talk a lot about the big storm: “It’s gonna come and the whole city’s gonna flood and it won’t exist anymore!” and it’s like, Hahaha! Clockwork Lemon, 2005, oil and enamel on linen, 72 × 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Nyehaus, New York.
JH: I wanted the installation to be for the people living there. And I actually thought to avoid melodrama in this situation in favor of stating something very soberly. I avoided doing anything in the 9th Ward because I felt like
ART / Jacqueline Humphries
the damage and suffering is truly citywide without being publicized that way. Mid-city: the neighborhood in the heart of the city is basically abandoned, and I don’t know how they’re going to knit back any urban community with that population hole.
with content about loss and about destruction, and, to me, that’s the magical thing. How do you get that without depicting anything, without referring to anything? Do you paint out the references? JH: The referent is never there; there’s no starting with something which I then paint out. I like to think you make a painting against the background of all other pictures, so the figures are there, offstage. My goal is always to paint a picture, not just an abstraction. It’s a kind of situation where you’re totally thrown back on yourself to conjure something, and confronting that situation of not knowing what the picture is going to be interests me maybe because it makes me so anxious. It’s nice, what you said you got out of the New Orleans paintings. I always find this hard to put into words. It’s a notion I have about what abstraction can do, which I attempt to answer differently with each body of work; that maybe you can augment the “real” effect without the intermediary of represented “things.” For example, there are ways of expressing fullness and emptiness other than with objects. And what really compels me is the very palpable risk of failure, as if edging up to an abyss.
CB: Your next paintings will be the first body of work since making those. Do you feel that the experience is going to inform what you’re up to next, or is it too soon to say? JH: I’ve done that work; it’s finished. I’ve said what I had to say about it, and it was nice to have had that opportunity at all. Things in the studio are going in a different direction now; I intend to have a bit of fun. CB: I’ve said to you that I don’t want to talk about myself because I think that’s really vulgar, but we have to just slightly go into this abstract thing. JH: But I want to talk about you, see? CB: I always get panicky when there isn’t really a figure or a trace of a figure in a painting of mine. But your abstract paintings for New Orleans seem filled Untitled, 2005, black lightbox, acrylic on fabric, 52 × 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Nyehaus, New York.
CB: I think it’s almost impossible to not allude to
BOMB something. I must say, “abstraction” is a term I personally find very frustrating and limiting.
interested in what had been achieved by the New York School. How a Barnett Newman can be so agressive, and also inviting; the way a Pollock messes with your mind and body; the kind of direct address of a Guston. The way a de Kooning feels almost magnified and turned inside out.
JH: For painters I know, the dogmatic division between abstraction and figuration is no longer relevant, because maybe both camps are dealing with many of the same problems. Possibly one day people won’t make the distinction between figurative and abstract painting.
CB: You said something about how you felt figuration had almost played itself out.
CB: I don’t make the distinction. A painting ends up as it wants to end up. It’s a combination of will, consciousness, and self-consciousness. You’re the kind of painter you are; you can’t help that any more than you can the sound of your own voice.
JH: I felt it had lost its historical grip, and that loss indicated something important about our time. Modernist painting for me as a young artist was the given, the ground in front of me, what I had to face and think about in order to paint. I felt that there were implications there which had to be addressed, not cynically but not naively either.
JH: I think painters identify certain things that nag at them, maybe beginning with their preceding generation.
CB: You wrote to me recently, “Abstraction had carried on with painting and produced a different experience with it and I wanted to continue that work, take up that challenge, the legacy of all painting as inherited by abstraction.”
CB: And the more you create your own history, the more you paint, the more there is to deal with, because you have to deal with what you last did as well.
JH: And then it soon became obvious to me that that was as much a dead end as figuration.
JH: Right, and then maybe you’re working away in your 21st-century way, and suddenly you’re thinking about a 17th-century artist you never gave much notice to or didn’t like and then you see this whole dimension opening up. I used to hate Caravaggio, and then one day I had an almost revelatory experience in front of his work in a church in Rome. I suddenly saw what he was doing—it was not an obvious thing. The forms on the canvas were making me see things that weren’t actually painted there, yet I had the overwhelming feeling I was seeing what he wanted me to see. I felt like I’d seen a ghost. So the more you paint, the more it opens up what painters did in the past for you, which then gives you more insight into ways in which you can refigure what you’re doing. Painters you love—the great ones, dead ones, usually—they’re like lovers. You get so intimate with them, and it’s thrilling and different with every one. But then you’re spending all this time in the graveyard and eventually you have to get out of there. Painting always has been dead, but, in the same measure, so alive. It’s the unlife.
CB: Part of the deal of being a painter now is that the dead end is yet another thing you’re dealing with, you know? JH: Right, because you must go on; you have no choice. I always thought it was historical narcissism to think that it’s our age in which no more paintings can be made. Maybe painting is dead, but paintings must still be made. We are not the first generation to feel that we’re post-art. You have to wonder about all those 19th-century painters painting scenes from antiquity—what did they think about their own time? Foucault talks about this extensively in The Order of Things: this projected time of plenitude which is always past or future. CB: How would you feel about being described as a modernist? JH: Are you calling me names?
CB: You paint in relation to the things that excite you, so inevitably the New York School was a starting point.
CB: A student called me that the other day, and I thought, Maybe it’s my guilty secret.
JH: There was a great deal of antagonism against Abstract Expressionism in the ’80s, so that attracted me. I wasn’t ready to be told what should engage me, but I didn’t have a sack over my head either. I never went to the Cedar Bar; I wasn’t bearing a torch. I was at Pyramid Club and Save The Robots every night. Engaging the New York School in the early ’80s did not make you popular with anyone. You have to understand, I was in the Whitney Program and reading a lot of theory even before that. But I was terribly
JH: But there’s so much humor in your paintings, which is a way of putting your ass on the line. Postmodernism is supposed to be all about appropriation and cynicism; about adopting an attitude more suited to being intellectually advanced. But why not appropriate an attitude of seriousness, or even sincerity, whereby the distancing of cynicism is removed? CB: I think one of the great things about working
ART / Jacqueline Humphries today is that there is more allowance for a diversity of approaches. I was actually reading about Mondrian and De Stijl and their rules: no diagonals! When van Doesburg put a diagonal in, Mondrian cut him off! I know similar things happened with the Surrealists. It must have been rather wonderful when it was all so deadly serious.
really wasn’t my job to make the painting, but to destroy it. I have to destroy the painting I know to make the one I don’t know yet. One thing I’d like to talk about is the idea of intentionality versus happenstance. I think you have to risk taking responsibility for accidents as much as for deliberate acts. Because who’s to say what you really meant? This whole thing of control is an illusion; we’re not really in control of outcomes. I think most people accept that. What’s harder to accept is that maybe we’re not really in control of our actions, either.
JH: The Mondrian example brings up this whole notion of freedom and latitude. Maybe in the end, painting is as much about constraint as about freedom, how constraint allows freedom . . . and transgression.
CB: It doesn’t feel exciting if it’s too conscious. You don’t want to feel like you’re just plodding along, slapping paint down.
CB: I read your interview with Tony Oursler in your catalog for the Black Light Paintings show at Nyehaus in New York. These go back to your idea of making things entertaining. Doing lightbox and black-light paintings seemed to me like a genuine investigation, and that’s one of the great luxuries of our time. It wasn’t suddenly like you had to face a chorus of venom from purists.
JH: Maybe it’s not a respectable way to go about things. Certainly it puts the idea of an author’s authority into question, but it’s the only way I know how to go about painting. CB: You’re almost running a race against yourself while painting. The most desirable state for me is when you feel like you’re just trying to keep up with yourself. Everything is intuitive or instinctive—you know exactly which color to reach for.
JH: Black-light art is a cliché. I liked to think that I could redeem it somehow, make it fresh again. I thought, What happens when I put the whole painting in this machine? What if I just change the entire light conditions of the painting?
JH: Yeah, when it’s practical and logical but from the seat of your pants. I like the notion of instinct more than intuition because you’re dealing with a kind of impulsiveness—archaic and primitive knowledge.
CB: You talk in the interview about all of the associations and cultural affinities of black light: psychedelic posters, spook houses, folk art, the use of black light in surveillance, jellyfish, invisible ink. You talk about the color as a lure, the seductive role of color, and again we go back to what we both agree is our primary job: to get people to stop and look. These luminous, fluorescent colors appear in nature as a kind of siren song. Did it seem sort of flat to return to regular old painting?
CB: I can imagine this is what it’s like when a writer is flowing; there’s no groping for a word. All that time spent sitting there staring, agonizing, wondering what to do next . . . all that is preparation for when you’re actually painting. I have all sorts of tricks for getting myself started, like just cleaning up one corner of the palette or putting out just one color. It can help to lower your expectations—not to go into it thinking, This will be a good painting. But rather to sort of creep up on it.
JH: Well, the silver metallic paint was estranged enough from conventional color, so there was a lot of continuity. It was nice to be able to turn the lights back on, too. It happens very subtly, but the silver reflects what’s in front of it, so your presence registers in it when you’re standing before it. That functions as a kind of subliminal lure. There is a physics to how the metallic reflects light that is completely different from conventional pigment. It picks up light in unpredictable ways, sometimes coming forward very aggressively, at other times going more dead gray and giving way for the color to advance. So, at times they look really gaudy and crass, and at other times quite sedate.
JH: I noticed watching the Olympics—the swimmers, of course, because that was the big thing this year—how they always get wet before they’re going to swim; it’s like they have to become one with the pool. I realized I have to be prepared to be dirty to be able to do anything worthwhile in the studio. I find that those preliminary painting activities are a similar sort of thing. CB: Yeah, even putting on work pants as soon as you get in the door can affect the whole day. I could never be one of those painters with a team of assistants mixing up my paint and who just walks in, picks up the brush, and starts at it. Sometimes you can spend half an hour mixing up your colors and then find a total void. Not knowing what to do or how
CB: Do you ever use spray paint on the canvases?
JH: I like it because it neutralizes the handmade quality of the gesture. At some point it occurred to me that it
Dirty Mind, 2008, oil on linen, 90 Ă— 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.
ART / Jacqueline Humphries to start. Or you get interrupted. But it isn’t always a waste because even if you’re not physically painting you are still using the painting brain—any painting or studio activities use that part of the brain.
would be depressing to feel that you could have been making these at any time in the last 50 or 70 years. But at the same time, doesn’t painting move on a slower timescale than other art? Are we juggling the same issues as Manet?
JH: None of this is really normal. It’s all learned. But, in a sense, it is natural. The very substance of paint is a sort of abstract, formless thing that’s very other, but physical and biological, too. It’s very base.
JH: I think every painter has to start from the very beginning.
CB: Yeah, one gets more and more informed and knowledgeable about moving the stuff around, so it’s not like being an infant smearing shit, despite what some people think. Even when you’re at your most unconscious or instinctive. That’s why painting gets more exciting the longer you do it: it’s an informed smearing of shit. (laughter)
CB: How does it avoid just being self-regarding?
JH: Or self-referential . . . do you know the answer? (laughter) CB: No, although I think painting is the least elite of all the arts. It still irritates me is when painting is accused of being the evil capitalist when everything else is just as expensive these days.
JH: Don’t you think writers have trouble writing about painting? What do we do with this thing called painting? It’s almost become its own category: there’s art, and then there’s painting. There doesn’t seem to be any available way to effectively discuss or make sense of issues in painting, or even to make judgments about it, which is astounding, especially since there’s been so much of it around lately. Note to self: reinvent the discourse of painting; try to get it done by Tuesday. CB: Do you think reinventing the discourse is ultimately up to the artists? JH: I think what painters have done in the past 20 years calls for a reinvention of the discourse. Certainly there is art writing which is attempting to do this. A sticking point seems to be the issue of form and how to discuss that. Like what does formal mean? CB: Formal issues are the elephant in the room. A lot of students I talk to are so focused on content that they seem shocked if you say, “Have you tried putting a little more oil in your paint?” or “How about using a yellow ochre instead of lemon?” Outside circumstances may shift slightly, but in the end, painters are still concerned with the same handful of problems. JH: Yes, but maybe painters are doing things differently. Like the precise way in which your paintings are truly figurative but approach concerns that are more properly in the domain of abstraction: certain ways of using paint, making forms, the way the image disperses and recongeals, the respiratory quality of your forms and how they seem to expand and contract, the way movement occurs. I think there’s something new happening there. CB: I’d like to think so, because you want to feel like what you are doing could only be done now. It
I thought I had discovered Eric Kraft when reading Taking Off, the first in a series about his alterego Peter Leroy. I had felt a little like Peter Leroy himself when something in a comic book or the arse of a junior-high physics teacher prompted him to have one of those startlingly profound adolescent revelations. To my slight disappointment, I soon found out that Kraft had a big fan club out there. The publication of Flying—which gathers all the books in the trilogy that began with Taking Off, continued with On the Wing, and finished with Flying Home—is a great event for Peter Leroy fans. In the third installment, Peter tells the “true” story of his famous flight from his hometown of Babbington, Long Island, to Corosso, New Mexico. We hear Peter’s voice as well as that of the older narrator who takes a trip following in his footsteps. The two narrators and their adventures take place in related but dissimilar worlds and time periods, but the mastery of Kraft’s storytelling weaves them together in a way that is a piercing meditation on memory, narrative, and myth-making. Critics will draw parallels between Babbington and Macondo, because both García Márquez and Kraft have imagined complete worlds, although there is one major difference: Peter Leroy is as American as Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain. His epic is a profoundly American story, with all that it entails: cowboys and Indians, flight, derring-do, wilderness encounters, vast geographical distances, and questions about science and faith. Yet what prevails in Flying is a gentle defense of childhood and of adolescent dreams. Kraft is a disarming writer. What weapon does he relieve the reader of? Skepticism. The narrators of the Peter Leroy trilogy are plenty skeptical themselves, so they lighten your burden. You, reader, need not be a skeptic: the American Proust who practices the art of memory, plunges into its depths and
By Andrei Codrescu
literature / eric kraft
workings for you with a great deal of delight in the operation. What follows is an e-mail discussion of Flying, a conversation kept purposefully high-minded by the interviewer for fear that the writer might cunningly, and at any moment, slip into Peter Leroy’s skin and start making fun of the questions. He tried. It didn’t work. This is a serious talk about writing. —Andrei Codrescu
peculiarly American folly: a can-do attitude resting on a foundation of complete ignorance. My novel is something different from that flightless aerocycle, I hope. I have the advantage over Peter of having learned from his mistakes. His memoir is a part of my novel. My contribution runs over, under, around and through his memoir, and if I’ve been successful, it lifts the whole rickety construction off the ground and into the realm of romance.
AC: Is that how you see Flying, as a romance?
EK: I’m thinking of romance as Henry James characterized it, as “experience liberated.” James described the exhilarating feeling of discovering while you are reading a work of fiction that you are riding in “the more or less commodious car of the imagination” suspended beneath “the balloon of experience” tethered to the earth by “a rope of remarkable length.” And then he said that “the art of the romancer is, ‘for the fun of it,’ insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detecting him.” That’s me, every time, trying to cut the cable without getting caught in the act.
Andrei Codrescu: You have this fabulous Proustian hold on details of the past, even as you make it clear that you’re inventing some of it, and it’s your American delight in the mechanics of memory (and real things) that gives you such a big playing field. Mark Twain lost a lot of money investing in inventions, but Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer’s insatiable curiosity about how things work made us all rich. Your protagonist Peter Leroy is very much a kin of those two characters. Is this American thing essential to your narrative mechanics? Or put another way, how is your prose like a homemade airplane?
AC: Is Peter—Leroy, le roy, le roi—playing the part of the king in this romance, or is his name perhaps a reference to Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi?
Eric Kraft: I have to give you two answers. Because this novel is a false memoir, I have to answer first for the memoirist, Peter Leroy, and then for myself. Peter’s memoirs are like his many inventions and do-it-yourself projects, including the single-seat “aerocycle” that he builds, in that they are assembled from scraps and discards, and held together largely by wishful thinking. He makes the aerocycle from parts of wrecked motorcycles, aluminum tubing salvaged from folding tables and beach umbrellas, and fabric from tents and tarpaulins—and it never gets off the ground. His building mania may be a
EK: Although Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician plays a part in Flying, the name Leroy isn’t a reference to Ubu Roi. Actually, I’ve never been an admirer of Ubu Roi. Faustroll is another matter; when I first encountered it, it infuriated me. I was a student, and I was very, very serious about everything back then. Here was something that seemed like a very dangerous kind of antiliterature, since it was a work of literature, a work as rich and allusive as “The Waste Land,” but a burlesque, a kind of elevated buffoonery. It felt like a personal affront, and I found that I couldn’t ignore it. Now, although it still annoys me, I can say that Faustroll first made me begin to see that humorous art could be as rich a response to life as serious art could be—not for very serious me, of course, but possibly for someone I might invent. I gave Peter the name Leroy because I knew that his egoism was going to be one of his outstanding traits. Like every other memoirist, he thinks that he rules the kingdom of his past, that in that realm what he says goes, and what he wishes had been can be made to appear to be what was. Here and there throughout his memoirs he appears under several variations of his name. For instance, in the series of adventure books that he read as a boy—not as they were, but as he remembers them or wishes they had been—he is both the bumbling Larry Peters and Larry’s square-jawed and much more capable pal Rocky King. AC: You are one of perhaps three American writers whose joy in writing is immediately apparent and contagious. Your writing makes me happy; it seems to issue from a place of innocence and wonder,
Photo: Madeline Kraft.
BOMB while being about as sophisticated as storytelling gets, meaning that I am thinking about the nature of fabulation at the same time that I can’t wait to see what Peter’s up to next. Many well-known American writers have made depression, despondency, and anger an ur-ground for their work, and they seem to have the attention of critics. From where I stand, it’s a crime. What do you think about the motivation of writers and the expectations of our literary culture? EK: Well, on the one hand there’s the honest howl of anguish, and on the other there’s the calculated bit of fashionable fakery. There are plenty of people who are entitled to be angry, desperate, and despondent, but then there is that old black nostalgie de la boue, and it makes writers who have been treated gently by life wish that life had roughed them up enough to give them some sensational material. They know that, among critics, misery is automatically granted gravitas. So memoirists falsify their lives and novelists skew their fiction in the direction of misery and squalor. They’re like the four prosperous Yorkshiremen in the Monty Python sketch who compete with one another for the most miserable childhood memories, one of them eventually claiming that his family lived in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. AC: The day of the “brown paper bag in a septic tank” school will be over as soon the body-public begins to feel some genuine misery. There is an inverse ratio, I think, between the sloth of the spectating public and the exhibitionism of private wounds. I digress now, but for me, it’s a problem in teaching: I assign your books and those by Rabelais, Cervantes, Gogol, Barth, García Márquez, and Gombrowicz, and I get back memoirs of being tied up in a trailer for long years before being sent to get an MFA degree. It’s hopeless, I guess, until the fad passes mysteriously away, like leprosy. I don’t think there are any great writers who aren’t funny, self-mocking, or satirical: I always forget how funny Dostoevsky is, for instance. Which brings me back to the universe of Peter Leroy, a world as detailed and magical as any ever made. Peter is obsessed with flight, with escape. Can you tell me about his evolution in your cycle?
true. His older self, who is telling this story, has come to understand how much his Babbington boyhood enriched him. He has even returned to the town after years spent living in the larger world; his flight has turned out to be a round trip, and the most satisfying part of it is flying home, even if it means facing some home truths about himself. And I, above them both and pulling their strings, sometimes feel that life in the world that our contentious, bullying species rules is not everything that it might be. Sometimes, I just want to fly away, to make my getaway, sometimes so much so that I’m willing to trust my fate to feathers and wax. Where do I fly? To my work. To Peter’s world. AC: There are so many elements that point to a critique of simulacra—for instance, the parody implicit in the narrator’s description of Babbington. Even the name of the place carries a tinge of parody. I’m also thinking of Bolotomy Bay and the Bolotomy River— an anagram of lobotomy. The townspeople who are intent on preserving the place’s historical charms do seem lobotomized, don’t they?
EK: At the start of Flying, young Peter has just reached the age when life seems to be elsewhere, anywhere but the place he knows, the town that he’s beginning think is too small for him. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, his hometown of Babbington, New York, on the south shore of Long Island, has been the center of his world, and he’s been content to have it be so. Now, however, he’s got the urge for going. He wants the world, and he wants to fly to it. His dreams of flying and his daydreams of flying are dreams of escape and exhilaration, so building the aerocycle is a youthful attempt to make a dream come
EK: If you make an alternative version of something, the alternative is bound to be a comment on the original, and I seem to have a genetic predisposition to comment through
Adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions, from Flying.
literature / eric kraft parody. The people in Babbington who turn the town into a replica of what they think it was in the ’50s are saying that they think it was a better place then, and they seem to think that they can make life in the simulation as wonderful as they suppose it was in the original. I guess they’ve been lobotomized by sentimentality and wishful thinking. When Peter looks at the people of Babbington, the result is a gentle satire, I think; a compassionate satire. He does try to understand those people, and he does find that to understand them is to forgive them, at least to forgive their foibles and follies. By the way, Peter claims that the ancient Native American name for the place is Bolotomy, an obvious anagram of lobotomy, but this is more a schoolboy’s joke than a grown man’s judgment. However, another character in the work, the restaurant reviewer B. W. Beath, is not so forgiving. He is forever reminding the readers of his reviews—which I relish writing—that “most people are idiots,” and he clings to the hope that the Large Hadron Collider—the enormous particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland—might, when it is finally operational, “create a voracious black hole that will suck the sorry mess mankind has made into its yawning maw.”
has less to do with the seeming ease of your juggling so much, but with your training as a writer: how much journalism did you write in the past? EK: My only journalism experience consists of moonlighting as a rock music critic for Boston After Dark (now The Boston Phoenix) for a couple of years in my twenties; my day job was teaching English in a junior high school. I thoroughly enjoyed writing music criticism, but after a while I couldn’t afford to keep at it—or to keep teaching, for that matter. I began working as an editor of grammar-and-composition textbooks at an educationalpublishing company in Boston. The authors whose names appeared on those textbooks didn’t actually write much of what was in them; we in-house hacks did. Some of the examples that were presented to students as worthy work were previously published pieces that would be reprinted in the textbook with the permission of the copyright holder. However, the accompanying workbooks, practice pads, tests, and other supplementary materials required far more examples than the budget could afford, so these were created in-house. In a day, I might write an editorial, a straight news report, a piece of a short story that could pass for an excerpt from an entire short story, a personal letter, a job application and résumé, and a couple of advertisements. There was always an element of parody in the work that I produced, though I had to make it so subtle that hardly anyone but I would notice it. The most demanding and rewarding work was creating bad examples that the students would have to correct. These had to be incorrect or inadequate in specific ways that would make them didactically useful. To show the development of an essay, for example, I would have to create all the drafts as well as the finished essay. Merely saving all of my own drafts wouldn’t do because those drafts would not be deficient in the required ways. So, after I had a satisfactory essay, I would have to begin working backward to create false drafts, turning each of the essay’s strengths into weaknesses, its virtues into vices, one by one. It was like an OuLiPo game—fun to play, technically demanding, and tremendously instructive. Among other things, I wrote a research paper, which was presented as the work of a high school senior, on the history of the Babbington-to-Hargrove Street Railway Company, a little piece of the personal history of Peter Leroy in which there was, I can say with more honesty than Proust said of À la Recherche, not one fact that was not imaginary, including the sources, the footnotes, and the topic itself.
AC: Not far from the beginning of Peter’s (and the narrator’s) return in Flying, you have a marvelous layered passage that shows off the intricate nature of your story-telling:
I have quite a mental scrapbook devoted to that flight. To be truthful, flight isn’t quite the right word; flights would be more accurate, because it was not one continuous flight, though in the minds of most of those who remember it, or think that they remember it, it has come to be a continuous flight. I even think of it that way myself sometimes, as a nonstop flight from Babbington out to Corosso and another nonstop flight back. When I was interviewed upon my return, I tried to be honest about what I had accomplished and what I had not, but the interviewers had their own ideas about what the story ought to be, and nothing that I told them was going to change those ideas, so I began to go along with what they wanted. The account published in the Reporter was typical, an account that made the flight seem more than it actually was . . .
An article from the Babbington Reporter follows, a terrific sendup of small-town journalism. There are at least five essays here about time and our perception of it, but none of it is essayistic; au contraire, it’s pure narrative. Then you add the parody, another comment on the transient nature of our reporting. You delight also in diagrams and drawings that illustrate your various ideas, and then you have Albertine, the narrator’s wife, “checking” his flights of fancy, with Socratic and good-humored rigor. My question here
AC: I seem to see many Oulipian elements to your writing. Did you follow any constraints in Flying? If you did, I’d be interested in knowing about them, since one hardly finds that in American fiction, as opposed to poetry. EK: I like to impose constraints on myself during revision.
I don’t use note cards or timelines or charts or smoke or mirrors. Memory is my essential subject, and I use it as my essential tool. For example, very late in my work on Herb ’n’ Lorna, when I felt that the novel was nearly done and that everything was in there that ought to be in there, I went through several passes to tighten it. Toward that end, I set myself the task of making every chapter exactly the same length. It was a way of ensuring that they would be balanced and condensed. The chapters were enriched the way a sauce is enriched by reduction, and the imposed constraint made me focus on the weakest parts. When I delivered the manuscript, with every chapter ending at the same place on the same page, no one noticed. AC: The younger and the older Peter are engaged in a delightful discussion of memory, since the younger one exemplifies imagination and actual experience as a potential source of memory, while the older is feeding on the younger to relive things that may or may not have happened. It’s a case of narrative vampirism. I find Albertine’s character truly fascinating, too: she is a kind of ambassador from “reality,” but such an affectionate one, she plays right along. I wonder how you kept these multiplying ideas and characters under control: it’s a technical question.
works together by the end—even the digressions. That snap when everything comes together is what I strive for, structurally and thematically. It’s one of the things that Peter and I have in common. AC: My next question has little to do with words, to which you pay masterly attention, but art (of sorts): there are diagrams and faux newspaper articles and pages of popular magazines in your book—did the computer make this possible, or did you always diagram the impossible in notebooks? (Those should be acquired for a goodly sum, I’d say, by a university library now, before you outprice them.) EK: The drawings and diagrams are there in part because they lend verisimilitude, since they resemble the illustrations and photographs that would appear in a memoir or autobiography, things that might have come from Peter’s boxes of clippings, sketches, and old snapshots. They are also part of my attempt to represent as fully as I can the culture in which Peter lives. To do that, I like to quote from the artifacts of that culture—not only from its books and magazines, but also from its advertisements and ephemera. They also reflect an interest in science and technology that Peter and I share. When I first entered college, I intended to become a mathematician or a physicist, and Peter has a similarly divided set of interests, standing with one foot in the arts and the other in the sciences. The computer has made including those drawings and diagrams much easier for me because I can’t draw. I can trace, though, and tracing became a way for me to make a drawing by revising it in drafts. I would make a drawing as well as I could, and then I would lay a sheet of tracing paper over the drawing and trace the best of it while improving the rest. Then I would treat the traced image as a second draft, and so on . . . For Flying, I used Adobe Illustrator to create the wiring diagrams, although I had to make them look as if they had been drawn by hand 48 years ago. So, I printed them, laid a sheet of tracing paper over them, and returned to my old method.
EK: I don’t use note cards or timelines or charts or smoke or mirrors. Memory is my essential subject, and I use it as my essential tool. I keep everything in my head. I don’t make notes before writing, and I don’t keep notes about what I’ve done. Because I do it all in my head, the process is prone to errors of memory. Over the course of many, many drafts, I correct the errors, or at least I try to turn them into errors that are less wrong in the context of the book and its story and Peter Leroy’s entire life. I reread and rework the story and its episodes again and again. This way of working ensures that I will be surprised many times during the work. It guarantees me far more surprises than I would have if I had the whole thing mapped and timed from the start. The errors also lend the work a kind of verisimilitude, maybe even a touch of truth, because they become errors of memory for Peter. Now and then he will make a statement about something that he did or something that happened to him, then pause and say, on the page, “Wait a minute, that can’t be right. It can’t have happened that way.” Those pauses and reconsiderations of his are artifacts of places in the writing where I have paused and reconsidered and revised and rearranged.
AC: You seem to approach words in a similar fashion. They’re physical to you, material. I can sense that in the anagrams, collages, and substitutions, and in the ways you manipulate type. Where does your approach to words as a physical presence on the page come from?
AC: You question a lot of generic conventions. You push the limit with your constant digressions, for instance. They threaten to hinder the plot, but then it all comes together. Do you ever worry that the digressions will overwhelm the story, or is that perhaps something that you wouldn’t mind?
EK: For a while, years ago, I made concrete poems. I’m not sure whether I will have Peter do this when he reaches his twenties, if I ever manage to bring his young self that far, but if I do, he will discover the same kind of playful relationship with words and type that I did. I used to lay the poems out on foam-core posterboard using rub-on type. They became a meeting place for the graphic and
EK: What’s most important to me is that everything
literature / eric kraft the verbal, and I still enjoy playing with the appearance of the text on the page, using it when I can to add another layer of meaning, signaling authorship other than Peter’s, for example.
a long way into the future. AC: Do you ever feel limited by Peter Leroy? Do you sometimes want to step out of his personal history, or to go beyond it? Or does staying within this one serial novel function as a sort of Oulipian constraint?
AC: Throughout the novel the writing wallows in artifice. The illustrations also are blatantly artificial. And yet there’s an inescapable impression that this is somehow real. How do you reconcile the tension between artifice and verisimilitude?
EK: The memoirs of a fictional character have very elastic limits. I’m required to include his personal history, of course, but I’m allowed to include anything he has read, heard, thought, or imagined. So he quotes from books that exist only in his world as well as from books that exist in his and mine. He includes in his reminiscences not only his imaginary childhood friend, but also his imaginary childhood friend’s sultry older sister, who becomes an obsession. He even has one friend, Mark Dorset, who has begun writing a book called Risking the Ridiculous, which examines the motives and methods of the actual author of Peter’s memoirs, me. So, if the form is constraining, I haven’t yet come close to discovering its limits.
EK: I think that the reader reconciles them, or struggles— pleasurably, I hope—to reconcile them. If I’ve done the job well, the tension is something like the tension in the optical illusion known as a Necker cube. It’s a wireframe drawing of a cube in which foreground and background seem to change places while one is staring at it. Some viewers can hold onto one interpretation or the other for a while, but then the cube seems to flip again, exchanging its front and back. With Peter’s memoirs, the fantastic and the realistic should exist in an indeterminate state like that. Now you believe, it, now you don’t . . . and now you change your mind. AC: I believe that the Peter Leroy cycle has reached, if not the end, then the kind of presence that will always be part of American literature. You made a world. I just want to select one thing, as a provisional conclusion of this discussion, namely, I need to thank you for improving the quality of our travel accommodations. Until my wife Laura got Sally, her beloved rat-terrier, we had pretty decent rooms anywhere we could find them. After Sally, we pretty much had to stick to places considerably rattier than our previous lodgings. Thanks to your redefinition of beloved dogs such as Sally (I won’t give away the formula, let each reader find it for herself!) we can now stay anywhere. Who says that picaresque novels make nothing happen? EK: The dog you’re alluding to is named Mister Pfister. Peter and Albertine encounter him—nearly run him over, actually—while they are revisiting one of the places where Peter stopped on his solo “flight” to New Mexico. There they find that a young motorcyclist Peter met on his earlier journey has become a wealthy purveyor of consolation for people who feel that they are suffering from “pre-traumatic stress syndrome,” the feeling that something bad is going to happen to them sooner or later. I’m a little worried that you may be suffering a bout of pre-traumatic stress syndrome (or “pre-traum,” as pre-traum counselors call it) over the end of the Peter Leroy cycle. Let me offer you some comfort: I assure you that the cycle has not reached the end. After all, in the published work, young Peter hasn’t even met Albertine yet. I’m currently working on the story of their meeting. The cycle will continue for as long as I am able to continue it, and my hopes and dreams for it stretch
Ad for Dædalus Welding, based on an ad for Hohner Harmonicas that appeared in the September 1937 issue of Modern Mechanix, from Flying.
BY Tod Williams and Billie Tsien
ART / roxy paine
As architects we work for many different clients on a wide variety of projects, from private residences to laboratories, swimming pools, libraries, and museums. Each project demands that we research its specific problems and needs. Of the many different types of projects, our favorites are the art-related. We have designed museums ranging from the Downtown Whitney to the American Folk Art Museum and the Barnes Foundation. We also have designed spaces for artists such as Hannah Wilke; collaborated with artists including Carsten Höller and choreographer Elise Monte; installed exhibitions for Louise Nevelson, Agnes Martin, and others; and have integrated works by Sol LeWitt and Julian Opie in our buildings. We predictably appreciate some art because of its architectural form—think of Richard Serra, James Turrell, or Donald Judd. Other art we appreciate because its underlying search and research resonates with our own, even if its results are less obviously architectural. We first became acquainted with Roxy Paine’s work in the late ’90s and were instantly attracted to its rigor, intensity, and beauty. In following his work, we became intrigued by how it kept changing from project to project: what could possibly tie together perfect replicas of mushrooms and weed-choked vegetable gardens, showcases with astonishing varieties of Sculpey brushstroke specimens, machine-made abstract paintings, and stainless-steel boulders? Paine pursues each project with a deep intelligence—one that draws us in and changes our conception of our relationship to nature. We were asked to enter into a conversation with him for BOMB while Maelstrom, his piece for the Metropolitan Museum’s rooftop sculpture garden, was taking shape. When we visited his studio in Treadwell, New York, we realized that when it comes to his work, as with nature, the closer you get, the more you realize how little you know. Paine trains a personal lens on the world—he breaks things down, analyzes them, searches for clarity. Through our conversation, we attempted to train a lens on him. We might have captured him, although, most likely, he has escaped. —Tod Williams and Billie Tsien
od Williams: We’ve actually spent nearly three hours T just chatting and looking at the tree work—
roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum that you just showed us. It’s changing my idea of what you’re doing.
Roxy Paine: We’re actually all talked out.
illie Tsien: We had the good time before we started B recording. (laughter)
W: I’ve been thinking about why I’m attracted to T your work . . . I don’t know yet. At first what I liked was that you seemed to be exploring very different areas. The work seemed so incredibly varied, but deep and passionate. I remember thinking, What the hell is this person after? I decided that the consistent thing that you do, the conundrum you seem to face, is your relationship with the natural world. I’d like to talk about whether that is in fact the conundrum and discuss the issue of production: you’re interested in labor, and also, in reproduction. Those are the threads that intrigue me the most. What about you, Billie?
RP: Well, it’s also about trying to systematize things that are resistant to being systematized. I’m interested in taking entities that are organic and outside of the industrial realm, feeding them into an industrial system, and seeing what results from that force-feeding. The end results are a seamless containment of these opposites. The machine you mentioned, the PMU, takes geologic growth as its starting point and implants that idea into an industrialized
T: I just want to sideline off the conversation, but B I’d like to focus on Maelstrom, the sculpture for the
Maelstrom (in progress), 2009, stainless steel, 22 feet high × 140 feet long. Photo: Sofia Paine.
All images © Roxy Paine and courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York.
W: Well, it seems to me, Roxy, that when you T make the (PMU) Painting Manufacture Unit, a machine for painting, you’re questioning how things work, how things are constructed, and how things grow. You both make a painting physically and make the machine that makes it—even your machines are about issues of growth. And when one talks about growth, one is also talking about decay, so your focus is “What is life?” in the biggest possible sense; the conundrum of “Where do I stand relative to life and decay?”
BOMB mode of production. The resulting paintings reference both realms: the geologic and the industrial.
What has always appealed to me is the movement between romance—those things that are natural and beyond control; intuition, for instance, and also emotions—and the process that examines it, puts it through an analytical procedure.
TW: So how is that different, for example, from—I’m sorry, it’s naïve—say, a Monet painting? He sees the landscape and has to find a system by which he can attack it and, in a way, bring it into his world. He’s created a system by which he can re-present his understanding of the landscape. Is your struggle really different from his?
RP: I actually consider myself antiromantic. If the romantic is in the work, I want to collide it with its opposite. For instance, you may at first see Defunct as a romantic image: it’s an isolated dead tree in the landscape. However, when you see that both the materials and methods of its construction are from heavy industry, and that it has been broken down into component parts and reconstructed, you understand that the romanticism in the piece is tempered by a rationalized, industrialized view of nature.
RP: Well, it’s quite different and it’s quite the same. We’re each products of our time. With the Dendroids I’m translating the trees into the specific language of industrial pipelines. I started the series in 1998; they all have dendritic structures—trees, neural networks, vascular systems—as their root. Impostor was the first in the series, and Maelstrom is the most recent example.
TW: Is that to tame your romanticism, or to essentially order it?
TW: But that’s why I’m going back to this issue of the artist’s historical struggle. It’s true you’re a product of your time, but I’d say the artist always contends with industry, whether it’s Michelangelo working on the size of a block of marble or Cézanne with the canvas propped up in the landscape.
RP: It’s about distrusting it. The work is always about distrusting purity, about wanting to find the cracks in its façade. Romanticism, and its opposite, being completely reason based and analytical, are both flawed when they’re pure.
RP: I’m referring to the post-industrial revolution, but hold on one sec. (Gets up and walks away.)
RP: I distrust a pure notion of beauty. I distrust a pure notion of ugly as well.
TW: Roxy has just escaped this interview. . . . He seems to have been offended by that remark and he’s left the room. (laughter)
TW: Your Head Cheese Slices are fascinating to me, but they’re kind of creepy. The depth of the resin and the colors fascinate me. I would say that Maelstrom is inherently more beautiful than your Head Cheese pieces or Scumaks, which seem like gigantic melted lipstick mounds. I’m curious as to why you’re now making these powerful, large works that are absolutely beautiful and sensual.
RP: (Walks back into the room.) I brought some images out so we can actually—
BT: Talk about specifics.
RP: I have to say I hate this format, I always freeze up when there’s a microphone in my face; my mind just goes—
TW: Do you distrust beauty?
TW: There’s a napkin there.
BT: But they’re also slightly threatening.
RP: Yeah, Maelstrom is also about a completely destructive force.
RP: Yeah, cover it up. (Tape recorder is covered with napkin.)
TW: You’re putting it up on the roof of the Met. The museum people will work very hard to make sure it’s not destructive up there. I know that you are self-critical enough . . . How do you balance the celebration of your work, the lusting after it, with your desire for distrust? Where is that going to take you?
BT: Anyway, when I look at your work it seems very romantic. But then it’s antiromantic at the same time. This stems from a kind of struggle to make the romantic more manly. For instance, Conjoined, the two trees in Madison Square Park—even as they are tangled, they seem to be pulling away from each other. They made me think of two separate but entwined lovers, and of the Greek myth of Philemon and Baucis: the faithful couple who, according to their wish to be together in death as in life, are turned into intertwined trees upon dying.
RP: The piece’s beauty is not my number one priority. That’s just a by-product. For me, something is beautiful when it embodies an enormous complexity in a seamless whole. BT: I thought of Sleeping Beauty when I looked at a model for one of your Dendroids—when I was a child
ART / roxy paine RP: The third state is trees in the state of becoming abstractions. There are areas with recognizable tree parts and then others where representation is stretching, breaking apart, and coalescing again. So I want Maelstrom to be in this in-between state. I want the fourth state to be a pipeline in a factory that’s run amuck. This is getting back to the root of the material, so to speak, which is purely industrial. Here the piece is embracing its source. And, finally, the fifth state is that of a mental storm, or what I envision happens during an epileptic seizure when—
BT: Sparks and connections get all frazzled.
RP: It’s like flowing through a network, a short-circuiting that’s spreading through. TW: Your work has existed in two of those states for some time: the state of the pipe, the material, and the state of the tree. Although I have the feeling that the tree was never a tree, it was always transformed, and the pipes were never pipes. The other three layers are beginning to be added to the work. Was your starting point the tree or the pipe?
there was a black and white television show that did all these fairytales in silhouette. Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger, falls under a spell, and goes to sleep for 100 years. All these thorns and vines and trees start covering her completely. The prince has to hack through them. Like with your Dendroids, the images of this are both beautiful and threatening—there’s a tangle of stuff that you get caught in.
RP: In the beginning, there was the pipe. (laughter) TW: I always find Mondrian’s work most thrilling when he takes a landscape painting and begins to organize it into something that’s less literal and more abstract. While the abstractions are best known, it’s the in-between works, the ones searching in a middle state, which thrill. Later he goes back again to nature. I’m curious as to whether you think about your work in relationship to either your history, the history of the tree/pipe situation, and/or the history of other artists’ work.
TW: I like the trouble in each of your pieces. You weld them, as you said, to make them flow, but you also expose the system of construction and show the pipe as what it is; it’s indicating, as a visual footnote, that there’s no illusion . . . it’s just welded pipe, no more! RP: The idea of something existing in several different states simultaneously is very important to me. Like in quantum physics, how you set up the test of light can determine whether the light is a particle or a wave. The light has both of those inherent, antithetical qualities in it simultaneously. Each person’s brain is like that test; it measures what it’s seeing differently.
RP: I do think of Mondrian, particularly when the tree is in the process of becoming abstract. There is that wonderful progression in his work from the earlier trees that are very pictorial and refract more and more until, in the end, they are only comprised of black lines and primary colors.
TW: So you want to keep as many of these ideas as possible suspended in space, enabling people to be aware of them.
TW: Do you worry about your work becoming like Mondrian’s, so perfect that it could, in a way, trap you?
RP: If all those different states are not embedded in there, or if no one cares to interpret them, then the piece is, of course, a failure. I want Maelstrom to exist in five simultaneous states, although other people could see others beyond that. On one level, it’s a forest that has been downed by an unseen force—a force of nature or, perhaps, a force of man. I also want the sculpture to be the force itself, a swirling, churning force. The word “maelstrom” actually has a Dutch root; it literally means “grinding stream,” though it has come to mean a destructive current.
RP: Yeah, that’s always a fear, but I’m always seeking to avoid the traps or endgames that might be lurking. That’s part of keeping work vital; you have to pay attention to when you might be heading down the endgame road. With the Dendroids series you can see how it has evolved in the past few years: I have been seeking to expand the edges of the language, and send the work outward into those edges. Essentially, I am establishing the rules of a language, only to then break those rules. The most recent Dendroids are the Maelstrom piece and then its complete opposite, the 100 Foot Line, which is basically an isolated
TW: And the third state?
Head Cheese Slices, 2004, pigmented cast epoxy resin, polyester fiber fill, 19 × 21 × 26 inches. Photo: William Lytch.
BOMB trunk growing upward—just one single strand becoming narrower and narrower.
machine, the paintings, or the products, as you say, be compelling, so that even if you had no knowledge of how they were made, they’d still be fascinating objects. That being said, knowing how they were made enriches the objects, although this shouldn’t be the main thing that’s interesting about them.
TW: Oh, that’s wonderful; I don’t know the piece.
RP: It’s in model form, actually.
TW: It’s like an endless-column deal?
TW: You said you’re not interested in the art world and I’m wondering whether there are any living artists whose work you really admire, and whose work and minds you do engage?
RP: It’s an endless, much more organic and tapering column. TW: It’s a phallus, a column, a tree! A lot of different states, but I want to go back to what you were just saying. What are some of the little areas in your work that were of interest to you but which—
RP: Tom Friedman is an amazing artist. And Chris Burden is, of course, someone who’s always been very important to me. Both of them are people who take a kernel of logic and then build and build upon that until they have something that’s insanely beautiful and complex. Also, one of my favorite painters is Sigmar Polke.
RP: Felt like endgames?
TW: I come back to this issue of labor and your work’s laborious quality. Now you have assistants, but in the past you had an enormous commitment to realizing the work by yourself. Is it important for an artist to work that way, and do those three artists you mention work in the same way? The question is: Is this an ethical journey you can’t escape?
RP: Well, some people misinterpret some of my work as a kind of endgame; for instance, the machines. People seemed to think that with the Painting Manufacture Unit I was making a comment about painting; that I was claiming that a mechanized process could replace painters. They thought I was just having an incestuous dialogue about the art world.
RP: Processes and materiality can only be discovered and brought out by intense time spent just engaged on a given project. If you are a purely fabricating artist, you can tell who gets things fabricated: something is always missing. I can tell right away what these artists’ relationships to their materials are. I understand that for some people that removal from the fabricating process is part of their conceptual framework—
TW: Have you heard this about the machine or the product, or both? I have a different take on it. RP: It’s the machine and the product. TW: You seem to say that criticism stings, so what the hell are you going to do about it? Do you think it’s their problem, or has this actually become your problem now?
RP: Yeah; I can respect his work but I may not ever be able to really love it.
RP: It’s not my problem; I’m just giving you an example of people thinking there is an endgame where it may not exist.
TW: Like Sol LeWitt, perhaps.
BT: The same is true in architecture. There are architects who have an idea, an image, and don’t really need to know how to implement them. To some extent, that architecture has been considered more avant-garde. There is a distance, not irony exactly, which is admired because the architect is not actually dealing with how things get put together, or, a lot of times, even issues of habitation.
TW: Are you making more machines?
RP: The last machine was the Erosion Machine. Each piece’s complexity illuminates aspects of the previous machines that people may not have thought about before. Obviously the Erosion Machine brings erosion and geologic processes to the front and center—once you see that, you see the geologic references in the Paint Dipper paintings or the PMU paintings. This veers away from the art world talking about itself, which I’m not at all interested in.
TW: Thinking, “Okay, we no longer need that intense labor to produce things; we can have machines do it!” was a by-product of the machine age. Clearly you are working within that concern, Roxy, and we are, too, because our work isn’t entirely hand built. Though we believe in the commitment of the human to the process, and we don’t like it when it’s not
TW: I’m curious as to whether the product should actually be separated from the machine. RP: It’s important to me that when taken apart from the
The pieceâ€™s beauty is not my number one priority. Thatâ€™s just a by-product. For me, something is beautiful when it embodies an enormous complexity in a seamless whole.
Interim, 2003, stainless steel, 35 feet high.
BOMB present in the work.
parts of opium. The process increases the possibility of addiction exponentially. It’s just kept accelerating in the past couple hundred years. We started out being concerned with things that moved so we could hunt and eat, and then slowly we began to understand that matter is composed of molecules; molecules are composed of atoms; atoms are composed of neutrons, protons and electrons; and now we have found that neutrons and protons are composed of quarks; and soon I’m quite sure we will find that quarks are composed of something else.
RP: I get the feeling that a lot of your work comes out of a direct engagement with materials. BT: With pipes. (laughter) This is a relatively isolated place. Is isolation important to how you work? I know you have a place in Brooklyn, but according to Sofia, your wife, you spend about 80 percent of your time here. RP: For me it’s a practical reality: to do work at this scale I have to be in a place where there’s a lot of room. Even in that giant Red Hook studio, where we first met in 2001, there’d be no way I could do a piece of this scale.
TW: It’s absolutely clear in your work that it’s not just about the individual trees but it’s also about the forest.
BT: But what about isolation from other people?
RP: I have a desire to constantly to break things down in a critical way. I’m trying to examine it: why do we need to constantly break things down into component parts?
RP: It’s difficult to work up here for extended periods. Granted, there are some aspects of that isolation that may have positive contributions to the work, such as the ability to work undisturbed, but for the most part, it’s a practical necessity. Also, quite frankly, it’s a noisy process. When we’re going full steam, there may be five grinders going and someone may be wailing with a sledgehammer on a piece of pipe to get it to fit. It’s a cacophony, an enormous din. Actually, the concept of isolation and extraction is an important one. That’s one of the ideas that epitomizes at least the past 150 years of humankind: the constant desire to break things down into their component parts, in a chemical and conceptual sense. I think of my work in terms of this idea of fractionation: a process in chemistry where you take a compound, and through the introduction of one or more compounds or solvents, you break it up into its component constituents. I would like my work to resonate with this as well: an idea of taking this organic entity, in this case a tree, and breaking it down into its components.
TW: Because you are afraid of the romantic. Because this is the way by which you basically say, I’m afraid of the real and raw power that is in me as an artist and I will criticize it, and chop it up into tiny little pieces, until I’ve run it through my whole fucking system, until I can’t stand it any more, and then I’m permitted to regurgitate, and re-assimilate. RP: I guess my trying to understand it is an attempt to control it, in a way. TW: I see a problem for you ahead; I always only see problems ahead. Once you’ve built up this shop and you have some people that help you weld and construct stuff, it might be hard to deconstruct the machine. I mean, you’ve started a machine out here that happens to have humans behind it. How are you going to get back to the really small investigations that can be done by you alone? One way might be to crosscut what you are doing well with that which you don’t do well.
TW: I don’t see it; it seems to me that you are building things up continuously rather than breaking them down.
RP: Force myself to do things I don’t do well . . .
RP: Well, fractionation is the first step. You have the component parts, and then you can recombine them into new compounds.
TW: This is not basically a good career builder, but it’s good for life: I sometimes take on things that I’m not capable of, and work in ways with which I don’t feel comfortable.
TW: So the fractionation is not an end in itself.
RP: No, it’s the first step. I would like my work to examine this drive that humans have to constantly break things down into their component parts and isolate them further and further. This gets us into a lot of trouble as a species. It can benefit us—medically, for instance—but it’s also dangerous. Think of heroin, for instance, which is the extraction of the most potent alkaloids in morphine, which, in turn, is the extraction of the most potent
RP: Going back to the forest metaphor, to burn it down so that you nourish the soil. Yeah, it’s takes tremendous courage to do things you don’t do well. I feel like I have to analyze everything and run it through so many filters and processes before I actually let it out into the world. TW: I’m curious, Roxy, about whether you actually have the ambition to make architecture. Your work
ART / roxy paine
has inherent architectural possibilities as it moves into three-dimensional, physical structures not only capable of supporting themselves but also other things and people passing through.
boundary that’s not defined by us. Having studied art as an undergraduate, and then having gone to architecture school later, I actually like the boundary because I felt so lost in space studying art. You have to chart your own direction as an artist.
RP: I see them, yes, but there are certain aspects that steer me away from architecture. For instance, how intensely collaborative it has to be; how intensely you have to work with so many different entities to make things happen. That’s always frightening.
RP: Yeah, though I impose a lot of constraints on myself. The problem develops when the constraints that come from without overwhelm the constraints that come from within. When dealing with a large and complex institution, for example, whose structures can be surprisingly nebulous. You never know when some level of the bureaucracy will suddenly decide that they have jurisdiction over your project. You just have to chart your own way within those constraints. I like finding what variations are possible within a given set of restrictions—there are infinite ways you can go within them.
TW: But you are dipping into that world more and more. You dipped into it with your life partnership with Sofia, an architect, and the studio you built together, and you’re doing it now in your public work. Elements of your work easily translate into something that has architectural meaning. There’s a structural element that is like a disordered tetrahedron, or a newly ordered tetrahedron, and also that singular tree tower, the singular upright trunk.
RP: I’ve thought a little bit about this; perhaps you have some thoughts on it too. In the past there have been artists who have made architecture—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Piranesi. Don’t you think that it’s much harder these days, with so many layers of bureaucracy and regulations?
BT: But it’s not the universe.
RP: Yes, it’s not the universe. (laughter) TW: You clearly like these self-imposed restraints. You thrive on them.
TW: Many architects today are obvious in looking at art as a source of inspiration. A lot of artists look toward architects for inspiration too, however the two practices are inherently very different. I regard architecture as a service, though when it is done sublimely it becomes an art. Generally it’s not about the issue of form at all; form is the weakest portion of architecture, although it’s the most celebrated. BT: It’s hard for an artist to accept compromise. Coming from architecture, it’s not that we assume compromise, but we accept that our practice has a left and right: PMU (Painting Manufacture Unit) and PMU no. 18, 1999–2000, aluminum, stainless steel, computer, electronics, relays, custom
software, acrylic, servo motors, valves, pump, precision track, glass, rubber, 110 × 157 × 176 inches. Photo: John Lamka.
Watch a video of Roxy Paine discussing his stainlesssteel tree sculptures at BOMBsite.com.
Photo of painting: Christopher Burke.
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Upcoming web-exclusive interviews on BOMBsite.com this spring: Music / Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond by Tim Fite Redolent with the orchestration of strings, brass, and noisemaking widgets, My Brightest Diamond’s 2008 album A Thousand Shark’s Teeth vaulted operatic bandleader Shara Worden into the pop-music limelight. Listen to a live recording of My Brightest Diamond performing for the Happy Ending Music and Reading Series at Joe’s Pub.
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Darkroom (C.R. view), digital C-print, 2008. All images courtesy of the artist and Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.
art / adam bartos by A.M. Homes
BOMB Adam Bartos is a complex and reserved observer, a laid-back official from an agency that never was, The Discerning Eyes of the Arts. He shows up as witness to the moment when history is passing, when culture is fading, when time has stopped. Whether in the photos of yard sales; his new images of darkrooms; or his earlier explorations of Los Angeles, the United Nations, and the Russian space program, his eye is drawn to the detail in peril, the moment on the verge of being lost, the object that most defines. He’s shy in the most charming of ways—you never know what he’s thinking but you can be sure that he is thinking. When he speaks you lean forward to listen, and if you can get him to laugh, well, that’s the best. He erupts, breaking into an incredibly winning grin. I met him, years ago, in East Hampton; I would see him at the beach, at picnics and summer parties, and at yard sales, looking at stuff not for what it is but for what it means, what it says about us, what it says about the movement of time, how fast and fleeting and melancholy even the most sublime of moments can be. Like finding a treasure for a dollar or watching your child’s toes dip into the ocean for the first time. Adam truly gets how complex life is, how multi-layered, how global our world is. His images catch the space between things: the stopped time; the jazz shuffle; the downbeat, half-skipped heartbeat that is life as it is lived and as it is passing. —A.M. Homes
the winter, when it’s deserted, with the grid of concrete pads and picnic tables going up to the dunes. The light is exceptional, and I think some of it migrated into the yard sale pictures.
AMH: How do you stop with the yard sale photographs? Aren’t they addictive?
AB: I’m relieved that I don’t have to go to any more yard sales. (laughter) I’ve done it. AMH: Growing up, there was a family, the Pops, who lived across the way. They were the only neighbors who had garage sales, really a carport sale. They used to have completely mysterious things. That Hamilton Beach milkshake maker—the green machine with the silver cup, which I thought was so wild—you could have a soda-fountain milkshake maker in your house. But they also had these books that I can’t believe I never bought, like How to Psychoanalyze Your Neighbors— AB: Come on! (laughter) I never went to yard sales as a kid because I grew up in Manhattan.
.M. Homes: How do you know when you’ve A completed a body of work? For some people it’s done when it’s either shown or published and for others the work just goes on regardless. Are you still photographing the yard sales or Hither Hills park and campground? I love Hither Hills, I’m obsessed with it as a place.
MH: How did yard sales become a photographic A thing for you?
B: I pay attention to objects, ones that have the aura of A a relic, or something forgotten, obsolete or neglected. And I’m drawn to photograph surfaces with some clutter, like desktops. They are like little stage sets for conscious or inadvertent arrangements of material. After all, a yard sale is really just an opportunity for someone to juxtapose and display all kinds of stuff. The phenomena of the sales themselves didn’t really interest me so much. And I thought about that. It took me a while to figure out how to approach it—I started by using a large-format camera and attempting to make tableaux but that camera was unwieldy and limited me to broader views. So I switched
Adam Bartos: Yes, it usually stops because I feel I’m repeating myself and the energy is lost. I did go back to Hither Hills a few years ago and wanted very much to pick up and continue. The state police made that impossible. Apparently, I was trespassing, and was instructed to stay away. But, you’re right; it is an extraordinary spot. Even in
Hither Hills, 1991–1994, C-print.
art / adam bartos to a 35 reflex camera in order to photograph close up and shoulder-to-shoulder with the other hunters. I didn’t begin to take it seriously until I saw these wonderful inkjet prints that I got from those little negatives. Then it was thrilling to continue, knowing what was possible to record. AMH: It’s interesting how, looking at your work—the yard sales, the United Nations, the Russian space program, Los Angeles—they all have a melancholy tinge of things slightly left behind, or the thing looked back on. AB: It’s hard for me to explain what that is. I feel some tenderness about these things—and I suppose that I photograph what I like; I think that includes people as well. John Berger said about Boulevard, my book on Los Angeles and Paris, “Althusser once defined solitude as ‘nobody anywhere is waiting for you.’ All the places in these pictures have turned their backs on us. For them, the photo doesn’t exist.”
AMH: Things and places.
AB: I want to maintain a disinterested attitude, a consistent distance, which is important because I’m not trying to make a particular or singular statement about what I’m photographing. Even when I photograph people, as in Hither Hills, I see them in relationship to a landscape, maybe in a kind of sculptural relationship to objects as well. But in spite of myself, that feeling of solitude comes through. AMH: It’s a personal vocabulary, the language of your work, the thing that is the you that’s in there, that’s not named or articulated or even necessarily intentional, but it is the thing that repeats itself, which I find mesmerizing. Architecture comes back again and again in your work, elements of buildings or relationships to a piece of a building.
AMH: How do you think the UN physically has changed since you finished that series in 1994? Do you think that it’s deteriorated even more?
AB: My father was an architect. So I was aware of the fact that something is made through a process. As a kid I knew that somebody designed the buildings I saw. And I have also always been interested in vernacular architecture, architecture without architects. The character of surfaces as well, and in particular, how age or newness affects how things look in the present. I like to champion objects and spaces that I think are not fully seen on some level, and that speak to me. The UN project and the Kosmos projects are both worlds that I felt like I could possess in some way. To me, these places felt as if they had been made to be photographed in color and it had not been done. Also, while the UN building and the Russian space program are symbolic spaces, the references we bring to them have changed over time, as they became relics of discarded aspirations. So in that sense, I’m examining the past, or reorganizing it for myself because I find these places beautiful.
AB: Well, I’m sure it’s built up some more layers of patina. It was falling apart already, there was leakage and—who knows? AMH: When it was built, its intention was very forward-thinking in that sort of Jetsons way. You captured something similar about past and future with the Russian space program as well; there are so many levels of years present in any one image. AB: Well, both are examples of design springing from stated ideals that are forward-looking. But the time period in the Kosmos pictures is tricky and layered, as you say. I think Russians are naturally inclined to be involved with notions of posterity, and, of course, there’s an enormous amount of officially produced propaganda material
Yard Sale: keyboard and flower, 2007, archival pigment print.
BOMB commemorating Soviet achievements in space—we all know what it looks like. Personally, I found the desk or bureau-top altars that were maintained by my portrait subjects with a picture of Sergei Korolyov (the mastermind and chief designer of the space program) very moving. Being a part of this enterprise was the high point of their working lives and still remains a part of their domestic landscape. Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan in ’99, I photographed a Russian launch sending astronauts to the International Space Station. The Soyuz booster currently used for this purpose looks identical—to me—as the Soyuz that launched Yuri Gagarin in 1961, and used the same launch pad, number 1. (Confirming the brilliance of the firstgeneration designers and engineers I just mentioned). The rocket and the erector that it lies on are painted the most surprising colors: orange, yellow, dark green, light blue, brown, and red, with silver highlights. There is something oriental and archaic about these colors that alludes to the cosmic myth that is linked to the actual history of Russian space exploration, and still has a presence.
that the photo’s being taken and the one later as it’s being viewed. There’s always a space, which is contemplative. AB: I like that approach to photographs. I make pictures that need time to be seen or reveal themselves, and also that have some sense of time within them. AMH: Which is funny because it’s a fast medium and yet it’s— AB: Yes, the paradox of the latent image. It takes time for me to see what I’ve done. The expectation that carries over from the moment of exposure makes it impossible to really see the result until plenty of time has passed.
AMH: Adam, how’d you become a photographer?
AB: Well, I took pictures as a child, and later I was an avid member of the darkroom club at school, so I was very interested and at just the right age to be seduced by the glamour of Blow Up when it came out. Not only Veruschka and Redgrave, but especially the part in the beginning where the David Hemmings character comes out of a flophouse, with his camera hidden in a paper bag, goes around the corner to his Bentley, and tosses the Nikon into his glove compartment. Something about entering into different worlds with a camera—of course I didn’t appreciate the alienation of the character until decades later! I had a summer job with Bert Stern, at his enormous studio in the East 60s, which was as close as I could get to Blow Up, close enough for me to realize that a career in fashion photography wouldn’t suit me. Also, I remember examining The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson when it came out in ’68, and that was a big influence on me. I went to film school but continued to photograph. At the time, my friends and I were shooting and projecting slides. I saw some early color work I really liked by Joel Meyerowitz in an issue of Artforum, and I just looked him up in the phone book. He invited me to come over and showed me a tray of his slides and looked at mine, which was terrific, and inspiring. In the mid-’70s I was fortunate to get to know Bill Eggleston and Stephen Shore and see what they were doing, as well as my contemporaries in color, Mitch Epstein and Len Jenshel, and, at a certain point, it became too engaging to do something else. And my parents were supportive!
AMH: The German artist Oliver Boberg photographs freeway underpasses, and they look like freeway underpasses, but they are constructions made in his studio. They have that same sense of melancholy, of something lost, that absence of people but presence of memory and history that I see in your work. Your UN and Russian cosmonaut pictures seem drenched in history and time moving. Melancholy is one of the words for those photographs and it’s not necessarily a bad feeling, There’s warmth as well; it’s very layered, rich—heartfelt. AB: Maybe it also plays with time in the sense of looking at the present as you might imagine it when it’s past. Or let’s say that you’re looking at something in present time and seeing what that will look like as past time through the photograph. AMH: But that’s almost the definition of melancholy, that the minute it’s past— AB: Exactly. You can’t enjoy the present because you’re worried about losing it. (laughter) AMH: Because by the time you’re aware of it, it’s already over.
AMH: Meeting those photographers, who was most compelling to you?
AB: That’s a reason to photograph, to keep a distance between . . . having to deal with that. The Hither Hills portraits are implicitly about that late-afternoon summer light by the ocean.
AB: I was juggling lots of influences. In color, Eggleston’s and Shore’s work were the biggest for me, even though they are so different.
AMH: Well, photography’s a particularly good way of managing time. You could look at it as a Buddhist. It’s a meditative moment, a buffer between the moment
AMH: Did you feel like you had to be crazy or wild, or carry a gun to be a photographer? Was it sort
art / adam bartos
above: Kosmos, (Soyuz on launch pad, Baikonur, Kazakhstan), 1995â€“1999, digital C-print.
below: Kosmos (Svyatoslav Lavrov, ballistics engineer, St. Petersburg), 1995â€“1999, digital C-print.
BOMB evolution of the world of photography? AB: No, to be honest, I am sort of confused about scale. It’s such an issue for photography as art, which is so different from—
AB: Exactly. The size of these LA photos is largish, but not really big. I was thinking of a contemporary translation of the size of a “mammoth” plate, which was 18 × 22 inches—absolutely huge when you consider that these were glass-plate negatives processed in the field by Watkins, Muybridge, Jackson, and others. The prints here are 25 × 35, which seems the right size to be able to read the details in these landscapes and see the entire image in a lavish way. A very big print pushes you farther back and needs a big wall. I think people have forgotten the pleasures to be had from smaller-scale prints and the medium’s ability to record intimate detail—I’m thinking of prints much smaller than this one. AMH: Although early photographs were small, there was that sense of awe, of seeing something truly for the first time. AB: Yes, and there was a great amount of description in the contact prints that were made from those big negatives. The point of view and the intent are to show you something very clearly, at least in the work that I love, much of it done by amateurs, by the way. Anyway, that’s a great reason to take a photograph. AMH: I have to say, I love the scale of this particular image. (We’re sitting in Adam’s studio and there’s an enormous 60 × 84 print on the wall of a front yard in Tijuana from 2008.)
of an outlaw medium? You could take it with you anywhere. AB: For me, the implicit connection photography has to the road, and its immediacy, is very appealing.
AB: Yes, well, to completely contradict myself, it’s huge. Gabe Greenberg, who was making some smaller prints of these Tijuana pictures for me, insisted that I see what one looked like at this size. I’m trying to sort out what I think about it. It’s like having a new window in my studio that looks out on a very different neighborhood.
AMH: Certainly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, photography was an edgy thing. You weren’t a fashion or a news photographer; what kind of photographer were you? AB: Well, there were always plenty of photographers working outside the categories of commercial photography, making pictures that had no obvious utility, and who probably bored people to death trying to answer your question. Many great ones were amateurs. Now, we can call it “fine art photography” and it’s become an industry too. As Thelonius Monk said, “there’s no boundaries in art,” and photography is a case in point.
AMH: You can’t hold the whole thing entirely in your eye for very long; you have to go into different places of it. And because of the colors and the shapes, it has a very painterly quality to it. It’s big. So, is that from a negative or from a digital photograph? AB: It’s from a digital file of a film negative. AMH: That’s changed; how much more specifically things can be adjusted or manipulated or made more real than the eye can even handle. I’m thinking about Clifford Ross’s recent photographs and the new
AMH: So, going back to scale, how has your relationship to scale changed and do you think the change for you has been a natural evolution or an International Territory (map section, library), 1989–1994, digital C-print.
art / adam bartos AB: I’ve been photographing darkrooms for a while.
AMH: That’s very cool. Just all over the place?
AB: As I can find them. Clifford’s is in here. (AB shows AMH a journal of images.) I’m still— AMH: What’s amazing about some of these darkrooms is how much like an operating room they look like, or a laboratory. (turning pages) Whose is this? I like this one a lot. AB: This is Chuck Kelton’s, who’s across from Union Square. He’s a top-notch black and white printer and very ordered. This is not an edit; it’s just— AMH: No, it’s really great to see. And also it’s great seeing what other people have on the walls of their darkroom. This one reminds me a little bit of your UN photos because you just don’t see—
lens he made. It has such incredible depth of field that everything is in focus. It’s actually hard on my brain. I don’t know what the neurological processing is, but it becomes difficult to understand. Even some of Gregory Crewdson’s last pictures—there’s a woman sitting in the center with a mirror behind her, and they’re both in equally sharp resolution; that disjunction feels like it’s playing with my head. You can’t write a story in which everybody is in focus. . . well, you could write it, but no one would know how to read it because you’d keep thinking: Who’s in charge? We all are. But that’s true for the moment we’re in photography, the combination of scale and the ability to render intense focus in an enormous size so that it actually overwhelms—
AB: It’s very much like the UN. AMH: You don’t see that kind of editing and splicing equipment often. AB: Yes, this is actually a moving-film restoration lab so they need to use all of this obsolete equipment. AMH: I love that one, that ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. (pause) These are really beautiful. (These images of darkrooms, in this digital age, feel like something that in a moment may be gone. Darkrooms, enlargers, strips of film—the parts you never usually see.) So how do you know when you’re on to something? (turning pages)—I love this. How heartbreaking.
AB: It does disable your critical faculties. That is the Gursky technique. It is an experience. I find the presentation problematic, all the plastic. AMH: But it’s also about how we process information, how we process things that we don’t think about when we think about looking at a painting.
AB: Once in a while I have a new idea; then there are false starts and sometimes it sticks and I continue. The Kosmos project came about after I read a notice in the Times about an auction at Sotheby’s of Russian space material, and I went to see it and was blown away. Last spring I went to Gdansk. I saw one of those iconic shots of the derricks at the shipyard and it got me thinking about the place and its history. Another emblematic place that is functioning now but whose time may have passed. I was very excited about the possibilities, as I imagined them.
AB: Speaking about focus, did you see the Morandi show?
AMH: I’m the only one in New York who didn’t.
AB: I know a few other people. I’ll introduce them to you. (laughter) By the end of it, I felt disoriented in a beautiful way. Going back to the same scale and subject matter over and over in all the variations of tone and paint, and finally arriving at the very small watercolors Morandi made at the end of his life, which are so delicate and empty, just on the very edge of abstraction and spontaneity.
AB: I went for a week and—
AMH: So tell me about what you’ve been doing most recently.
International Territory (Secretariat lobby phone booth), 1989–1994, digital C-print.
AMH: And how long were you there for?
AMH: One week?
AB: Well, with a young child I can’t be away too long. So, I went for a week and met up in Gdansk with Antek, a
above: Tijuana (blue Dodge pick-up), 2008, archival pigment print.
below: Ocean Drive, Manhattan Beach, 1979, digital C-print.
art / adam bartos young Polish actor who is a friend of a friend, to translate and help me. Everything was terrific, except that every day was as sunny as could be. Not one cloud. It was all wrong for Gdansk.
way, I want to see those. AB: Stiedl has done a huge Bernice Abbot book. They’ll be in there; it’s almost a catalogue raisonné. Work in a book really creates its own space because you’re interacting with it physically as an object.
AMH: When that happens do you think, Oh, I’ll go back in the winter?
AMH: What has always interested me about your work is your eye, how you frame a picture and how you make those decisions. I don’t know if it’s something you can articulate because it’s what you see in that place at that time. There’s something very specific about it and it seems to me that it’s not something you’re creating in the darkroom later by cropping, but it’s literally what you’re seeing as a photographer—
AB: It’s a big commitment. I’m not sure. AMH: The Yard Sale Photographs book is coming out; it includes a story by Raymond Carver—one of my favorite Carver stories. What’s not to love about that story? “Why Don’t You Dance?” And what else is coming soon from Adam Bartos? AB: The darkroom pictures will be published, in a small edition by Stiedl/Dangin. Not very many images but beautifully produced. Meanwhile I’m still looking for some interesting spaces. And I’d like to do some portraits.
AB: Yeah, where you put the camera.
AMH: Of humans?
AB: (laughter) Very key, yes indeed. Well, it is hard to talk about those processes because it is true that—I mean, there are lots of times where, I confess, I don’t know where to put the camera, or I keep moving it and it doesn’t look right. Because the decisions are endless. Then, it can be like saying a word over and over again until you’ve entirely lost the sense of it. But maybe there is an ideal in my mind that I try to impose and get right. I love working with the view camera because of its precision and slowness. There’s so much pleasure to be had just looking at the projected image on the ground glass and arranging where the edge of the frame will generate some energy. Bill Eggleston said that famous thing, that his model for composition was the Confederate flag. (laughter)
AB: Definitely. I want to photograph my elementary-school classmates, who would all be male native New Yorkers my age.
AMH: The whole key to photography.
AMH: Where did you go to elementary school?
AB: On the Upper East Side. I’m not really in touch with them, but I know that most of my fellow classmates still live here and hopefully I’d have a certain entry, and a glimmer of something shared with them. I’m not quite sure how I want to do it, but in the end, it will be about New York. AMH: Are you still in touch with Eggleston at all, if one can be in touch with Eggleston?
AMH: That’s very funny. Or the Jack Daniel’s bottle, whatever it was.
AB: A bit. I send Bill my books and he’ll call and leave some absolutely fantastic message on my voicemail that I’m always sorry I never saved. If I went to Memphis I would visit; he’s always been very warm to me.
AB: Skull and crossbones. AMH: Right, it’s very well honed in your work—where those edges are and why they’re there.
AMH: The last generation of photographers is now getting old. Robert Frank is obviously very old. It is an amazing group and at a certain point the landscape will shift again when they’re not—
AB: Well, in the Yard Sale Photographs, when I look at the pictures closely, which is hard to do when I’m taking them because I’m holding the camera, it’s not on a tripod, and you can’t study it too long, but I love to see what’s there on the very edges of the printed page. And there is an idea that the whole frame should be interesting. You don’t just stick something in the middle—like . . . Eggleston. Ha! (laughter)
AB: I have felt that it’s a shame that I have not tried to spend more time with Bill over the years. Now it’s ridiculous—everybody wants a piece of him. But I was always uncertain of the open-ended quality of such a visit. (laughter) AMH: I don’t know if they were published anywhere, but Bernice Abbot did those photographs of Route 1. She did this enormous road trip. And in that crazy
characters do judge each other, but even when they do, the stories do not. They are open systems, with—as one of Gaitskill’s favorite writers, Vladimir Nabokov, said of Lolita—no moral in tow. Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, judgment was one of the repeated themes of the conversation Gaitskill and I had this winter: her youthful judgments of people and how they showed up in her work, how readers have judged her characters, how she herself views them, how people in our lives judge the uses we make of fantasy, and even the possibility of moving to a place beyond judgment. The occasion for our talk was the publication this spring of her fifth book and third collection of stories, Don’t Cry, but we also discussed her first two collections, Bad Behavior (1988) and Because They Wanted To (1997), as well as her novels, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) and Veronica (2005). Don’t Cry has perhaps the widest range of characters of any of her books: Americans, Ethiopians, and Italians; grandmothers, children, war veterans, journalists, nurses, musicians, murderers. They behave in the broad spectrum of ways typical of her work: from kind and compassionate to harsh and transgressive. Written with her distinctive, uncanny combination of bluntness and high lyricism, Don’t Cry takes its place among artworks of great moral seriousness. —Matthew Sharpe
BY Matthew Sharpe The first thing of Mary Gaitskill’s I ever read was a short statement she made at the back of The Best American Short Stories, 1993 about her story “The Girl on the Plane,” in which a man tells a woman in the airplane seat next to his that he once participated in a gang rape. Gaitskill describes a reader of this story asking her, “What am I supposed to feel?” and goes on to say, “Most of us have not been taught how to be responsible for our thoughts and feelings. I see this strongly in the widespread tendency to read books and stories as if they exist to confirm how we are supposed to be, think, and feel . . . . Why would an adult look to me or to any other writer to tell him or her what to feel?” The word feel, as the aforementioned reader used it, implies a judgment of this male character’s actions, and of the story that depicts them. This is uncertain territory: are we in the realm of sentiments? Of morality? Of aesthetics? Language gives us these three words to denote what are presumably three distinct kinds of experience, but experience—and narrative art like Gaitskill’s that represents experience in all its intense complexity—is not so clean and clear. Her stories are about people having strong feelings, trying to figure them out, acting on them, and pondering what to make of their own actions and those of others. Often her
Mary Gaitskill 60
literature / mary gaitskill
atthew Sharpe: When did you think writing might M be something that you would do as a vocation?
a teenager then, so I was being very puritanical. I wonder if I wasn’t also jealous of the objects of this adoration.
Mary Gaitskill: When I was 18 or so. I was indignant about things—it was the typical teenager sense of “things are wrong in the world and I must say something.”
S: When did you start writing the stories in Bad M Behavior?
MG: When I was 25 or 26.
S: Do you remember what you thought was wrong M in the world?
MG: This will sound silly: it wasn’t social injustice, some people being poor and others being rich, or anything like that. I was living in Toronto at the time. Every summer we’d turn the main street into a mall; we’d close out the traffic and there’d be street performers and people selling things. I used to sell flowers and trinkets, and the boyfriend I had was a frisbee player. He and his partner made money doing that. They were really good-looking guys and they’d take off their shirts and people went nuts over them in an extreme way; beyond reacting to what they were actually doing. They represented something to people—nonconformism, I guess, freedom. I thought it was fucked up. It was my first close-up reaction to watching people turn somebody else into something like a superstar. I thought it was gross—people taking their own creativity or spark and projecting it onto somebody else. Now I don’t think that kind of projected idealism is all bad. I mean, I was
S: How many years did it take you to write that M book?
S: Do you remember which story you started M working on first?
MG: “Something Nice.”
S: That’s the one about the woman who’s M temporarily being a prostitute.
MG: It’s told from the man’s point of view, a character people have wrongly described as stupid. Fred is a romantic person. I don’t think it’s stupid of him to entertain fantasies of love. A phrase I remember was, “Dumbbell Johns who fall in love with hookers,” and I’m like, That’s not stupid, that means he has feelings. You could say it’s a little foolish, but that’s different from stupid.
MS: Bad Behavior had a pretty big impact, right?
MG: For a book of short stories by an unknown, yes.
MS: And how did that affect you?
MG: It was life changing.
MS: Do tell.
MG: I was stunned—I mean, my agent couldn’t sell any of the stories to magazines. I wasn’t expecting it to get reviewed in the New York Times particularly; I thought it would maybe get one of those “Books in Brief” articles that now are the reviews.
MS: And how did it change your life?
MG: I was able to pay my student loans and eventually quit my job. I could buy nice clothes—
MS: What was your job at that time?
MG: I was a proofreader. All of this changed my psychological attitude as much as anything, though that took a while. It changed my whole idea of who I was, but it was uncomfortable because I felt like my public identity was far outsized compared to my private one. At the same Photo: Ben Handzo.
It’s like an impulse to put up a building meant to last forever. An urge to grab and hold something in place when nothing human can be grabbed and held in place. time it was also constricted.
above Doris Day, why Charles Trenet topped Nat King Cole—but by a hair only. It was his way of showing people things about him that were too private to say directly.” And then later in the book these singers go out of vogue and the father can’t use them as shorthand for conveying his feelings. You said in one interview about Veronica that you wished some of the critics had touched on the question of form and formlessness. Can you say more about what you meant by that?
MS: Yeah, actually here are a few lines from “Today I’m Yours,” a story in Don’t Cry: “I did not realize I had made monsters, nor how strong they were, until the book was published and they lifted the roof off my apartment, scaled the wall, and roamed the streets in clothes that I never would’ve worn myself. Everywhere I went, it seemed, my monsters had preceded me, and by the time I appeared, people saw me through their aura.” Was that your experience?
MG: Music is part of it. Music is a form that tends to give shape to rules, social mores, social attitudes, feelings—it does this in a very beautiful, fluid way. To me the issue of form and formlessness is most strong in the theme of mortality versus a human wish for immortality of a sort. Take, for example, the definition of beauty in fashion. Remember what Alison says at the beginning? She says when she was young she didn’t know what beautiful was. She looked at this woman who everyone was saying was beautiful and she didn’t even know what they were talking about. I experienced that when I was a child. If I loved someone I thought they were really beautiful. And then eventually, I began to get it, the social concept of beauty. Not that I think beautiful is completely imaginary, but beauty is so wide ranging and fluid. Yet there’s a need to say: “This is what it is, and it’s not changing; we’re taking a picture of it to hold it still.” It’s like an impulse to put up a building meant to last forever. An urge to grab and hold something in place when nothing human can be grabbed and held in place. We come into these physical bodies . . . whatever we are takes this shape that is so particular and distinct—eyes, nose, mouth—and then it gradually begins to disintegrate. Eventually it’s going to dissolve completely. It’s a huge problem for people; we can understand it, but it breaks our hearts. And so we’re constantly trying to pin something down or leave a trace that will last forever. “And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita . . .” What other immortality will anyone share?
MG: Yeah. I was actually not a sophisticated person; I was lonely, socially ignorant, very shy. When I say that, people don’t believe me because the stories were perceived as bold. I also could blurt things out that were quite forward, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t shy; I simply didn’t know how to communicate very well. I’ve changed quite a bit, but I’m talking a long time ago. Suddenly I would be at these parties, or at dinners with, like, Sonny Mehta and some big agent. I had no idea what to say, and I felt that people expected me to be really sharp. They’d say things to me as if they were expecting me to hit the ball back really hard, and I would just freeze. MS: I see that in your characters a lot. There are these people who are unusually perceptive but are often trying to crack the code of some social situation: there is this constant effort to figure out who’s doing what and who’s where in the pecking order. There’s often this sense of people standing at the edge of a party and wondering, Are all these people having a good time or are they as baffled as I am? American culture and recent history are constantly woven into your books. In Don’t Cry the Iraq war comes up explicitly in “The Arms and Legs of the Lake.” “College Town, 1980” has the vibe of the recession that we had leading into the Reagan era. You’re also constantly referencing pop music. MG: I don’t think of it in terms of referencing it; it’s just very poignant to me sometimes, the way music will hit a person at a certain moment or will be playing in a person’s head. It’s just a naturally expressive thing for me.
MS: There’s a moment at the end when Veronica assumes a beautiful form in the dream of David, a minor character who takes in Veronica’s cat after she dies of AIDS. He tells the dream to Alison, who’s been narrating her friendship with Veronica throughout the novel. In the dream he’s at a party at a beautiful mansion and describes the beautiful guests:
MS: Yeah, there seem to be a number of dads in your stories who intentionally put on certain songs to try to recapture a feeling or to make up for certain lacks that they feel. There’s Alison, the narrator of Veronica: “My father used to make lists of his favorite popular songs, ranked in order of preference. These lists were very nuanced, and they changed every few years. He’d walk around with the list in his hand, explaining why Jo ‘G.I. Jo’ Stafford was ranked just
T here was one woman he noticed in particular; even though he saw her from behind, there was something familiar about her. She wore a beautiful man’s suit tailored to fit her. On her head of gold-blond hair sat a fedora, angled rakishly. She was talking to two men, and even from behind, her poise and intellectual
literature / mary gaitskill grace were visible. As if she could feel David’s eyes on her, she turned to look at him. It was Veronica!
as a product of damage. But I also think of it as a creative thing, a way to give form to something inchoate inside yourself. That’s why Hans Christian Andersen’s stories are powerful—they come from a deep place, like that story of the girl who trod on a loaf of bread. There’s so much violence and cruelty in this story and yet also a sense of purity and redemption, since someone is able to escape a violent, painful knot they’ve gotten themselves into. So yeah, Alison could use that in her own mind to make sense of who she is in the world and what’s happened. She has been bound in a dark place and although she’s gotten free, she’s a marginal person outside the big story, you know, but her story also has its own power and beauty.
Alison relates the dream to her sister and she says, “And that’s what Veronica was really like, under all the ugliness and bad taste.” I see that as one of the times when a character in your story uses form in a happy or useful way. MG: You could say that dream appeared in David’s head as something from the other world conveyed to him in a form that he can understand and translate. It’s also for his own benefit. He’d probably prefer to think that when people die, especially people who’ve had terrible lives, there’s a possibility that they’re going on to something ideal and beautiful. It’s a compassionate gesture towards this woman, Veronica, but it’s also comforting for him. Or you could say that it really is a communication from Veronica herself, letting him know, as the person who’s taking care of her cat, that things are going well for her. She’s putting it in a form that can be translated to human beings as good: a beautiful party, a beautiful home, a beautiful haircut.
MS: Did I understand you correctly that your friend said that sexual fantasies are the result of damage? That implies that people who aren’t damaged, if there are such people, don’t have sexual fantasies. I thought everybody had them. MG: Yes, most people do; I would find a person who didn’t have them strange. I think she meant particularly elaborate, grotesque kinds of fantasies about things that she didn’t really want to have happen to herself.
MS: At the end of Veronica a fairy tale is reiterated. The novel begins with Alison describing how when she was a child her mother would read her the story of a wicked little girl who is sent to work for a rich family. At one point the family gives the girl a loaf of bread to take back to her mother. When she has to cross a swamp, rather than get her fancy shoes dirty, she puts the loaf of bread down using it as a bridge and sacrifices her mother’s meal. Then she and the loaf of bread descend into this world of demons. One of the most amazing moments in this novel is when Alison describes not only hearing the story, but, since she is leaning against her mother, feeling the story. “I felt it in her body, I felt a girl who wanted to be too beautiful. I felt a mother who wanted to love her. I felt a demon who wanted to torture her. I felt them mixed together so you couldn’t tell them apart.” And then, at the end of the story, Alison projects herself and Veronica into this fairy tale by seeing the two of them as demons who become human by looking upon each other with pity. So this again seems to be an example where people project themselves into fantasies as a way to constitute themselves more salubriously.
MS: I have a relative who repeats the assertion that this whole business of everyone having a dark side is not true, that some people have “dark sides”—this is her term for it—and others don’t, and she resents Freud for suggesting that everybody has this nasty person or animal within them who wants to kill and devour. My assertion is always that the scariest ones of all are the ones that don’t believe they have a dark side. MG: Yeah, it’s even beyond us, what we like to call “dark,” and I don’t even like the word very much in this context— MS: Well, I mean, aggression, violence, willing pain on oneself or another person, is that the kind of thing you’re talking about? MG: Yes, but it’s not only a question of individual people’s feelings or psychologies. Again, this has to do with form versus the formless. A lot of what makes crazy people not be able to participate in society, in a way, is that their personality doesn’t take a recognizable form that functions well in the overarching social forum. The things that we experience as violent or destructive are huge formless forces that sometimes take form in us. Fantasy seems like a pretty harmless and creative way to express them.
MG: Fantasies can be very good for people. I had a conversation with someone recently who thought that sexual fantasy was always a by-product of damage to a person. I thought about that quite a bit . . . . I’m not entirely sure what she meant by it but it was an interesting idea to chew over, certainly. I tend to think a fantasy, if it’s an obsessive fantasy, can be a way of retreading over and over again something that was painful for you in an attempt to heal it, so I suppose that it could be described
MS: Another example of somebody using a fantasy or a fiction in a helpful way is Dorothy in Two Girls, Fat and Thin, whose father has sexually abused her. She’s having a crisis—almost a dissolution of self, it seems—at this community college, and then turns to
BOMB the novels of Anna Granite. They save her.
story, talks about the importance of its descriptive passages, the soft open quality of description right after this woman’s baby has been murdered. I was also struck by how, at least until the end, Chekhov’s story doesn’t have a protagonist.
MG: In a way, yes. You could also say that she’s been very limited and deluded by trying to live her life according to this other person’s ideas as expressed through fictional characters.
MG: It’s fitting that a protagonist isn’t that important in “In the Ravine” because it’s about a very big picture of life. If you were going to tell this story from Lipa’s point of view, the tragedy of losing her child would not be anything that she could quickly step back from. She would be completely in her feelings. But a bigger eye looks at her as this little person wandering through a forest and still notices the soft darkness and the sounds coming through the night. Chekhov doesn’t describe the scene as “beautiful,” but you feel the mystery and beauty of these things: the sound of birds, the sound of men’s voices, the sight of someone’s face half lit by the fire. You wouldn’t get anything but despair if you were in Lipa’s point of view— the foundation of her life has just been shattered. I would be hard-pressed to analyze why I consider “In the Ravine” such a beautiful story, though part of it is in those qualities of description where we are made acutely aware of the smallness and fragility of human beings, the strangeness of the world. Also how it expresses people’s will to live and their brutality and tenderness and vulnerability, beyond what the human heart can bear, coming up against this hard, beautiful world.
MS: So this is an ambivalent use of fantasy?
MG: At a certain point it’s useful to her but there’s a lack of fluidity. She makes it to be like “This is it, this is the literal truth,” whereas if it were something that’s held a little more lightly, it might not have that limiting effect. MS: This reminds me of parts in Veronica where Alison uses the metaphor of a series of ten photographs to describe the different ways that a given moment could be seen or interpreted. The first moment is when Alison describes how she got into modeling: “One night at work, Veronica asked me how I got into modeling, and I said, ‘By fucking a nobody catalog agent who grabbed my crotch.’ I said it with disdain—like I didn’t have to be embarrassed or make up something nice, because Veronica was nobody—like why should I care if an ant could see up my dress?” Then at the end of that scene, she reflects, “Imagine ten pictures of this conversation. In nine of them, she’s the fool and I’m the person who has something. But in the tenth, I’m the fool and it’s her show now. For just a second, that’s the picture I saw.” That seems to be an acknowledgement of the attempt to freeze moments into retainable images as well as of the fluidity that lies beneath the frozen ways in which we construe experience.
MS: But also cruel and ugly. The nastiest character in the story is this very seductive woman, Aksinya, who triumphs over the kinder characters. She has a willfulness and strength that others can’t contend with.
MG: At this moment I feel obliged to acknowledge a part of life that’s not subject to fantasies or projections and doesn’t care about how anyone sees it. I’m reading from a book of Simone Weil’s letters, Waiting for God. It was introduced by Leslie Fiedler, and he says something that I like very much:
MG: Yeah, she has a female sexual vitality that is part of what makes her wicked. Lipa’s vulnerability and passivity are part of what makes her good. I don’t entirely like the idea of a feminine ideal as something that passive. I mean, Aksinya has just murdered her child and Lipa doesn’t even say anything! The family thinks that Lipa is to blame for not caring for her child and she doesn’t even dare to tell them it wasn’t an accident. It disturbs me a little to see this passivity equated with purity and moral goodness. At the same time, it’s rather appalling that we’ve come to idealize vitality and strength to such a degree that somebody like Aksinya would probably be the heroine in a modern story. She has gumption, and how! In an American story she wouldn’t be a murderer. She would be the strong one who carries the day and has a successful business. And Lipa would just be drooping around chewing gum and scratching herself, and on welfare, probably, and considered bad because of that.
This world is the only reality available to us, and if we do not love it in all its terror, we are sure to end up loving the “imaginary,” our own dreams and self-deceits, the Utopias of the politicians, or the futile promises of future reward and consolation which the misled blasphemously call “religion.” The soul has a million dodges for protecting itself against the acceptance and love of the emptiness, that “maximum distance between God and God,” which is the universe; for the price of such acceptance and love is abysmal misery. And yet it is the only way. MS: Wow . . . Well, since we are talking about God, let’s talk about the Chekhov story “In the Ravine.” It comes up twice in Don’t Cry. The writing teacher, Janice, who appears in “Description” and in the title
MS: Yeah, this business of the meek shall inherit the earth doesn’t dovetail very well with the American ethos, does it?
literature / mary gaitskill MG: Well, the meek are despised now unless they’re very, very cute. But often in our culture people who are actually the meekest come across very aggressively—their aggression is masking a deeper passivity, so they’re doubly looked down on.
MG: Yes, although I wouldn’t say I dislike her; I wouldn’t go that far. MS: She goes to hear somebody she refers to as a “feminist author” at a book festival. And the feminist author reads a story that bears a striking resemblance to your story “Turgor” in Because They Wanted To. And this woman, the narrator, is offended by the “Turgor”-like story; she considers it a cheap, pornographic description of sexuality even though the “feminist author” has just given a speech in which she’s said that she doesn’t want to be defined in those terms. Did writing from her point of view, as you say, crack the story open for you, or did it help you figure out something that you didn’t know?
MS: There’s that final image where Aksinya’s fatherin-law—who after all was himself a villain, if only of a monetary kind—is deranged and no longer eats in his own house, where Aksinya has made him irrelevant. He’s wandering down the road half out of his mind, and Lipa and her mother treat him very kindly and offer him food. MG: Yes, to me Lipa is the one who does have the deeper triumph in the story, even though she’s lost everything and is essentially doing slave labor for Aksinya. But she nonetheless is walking down the road singing in this big beautiful voice, and she is able to extend generosity and help this poor man who’s been destroyed by his own wickedness. And that is a bigger kind of triumph, absolutely. I think sometimes the powerful of society can allow the weak to have that kind of triumph while they sit on their bags of money and have a sentimental enjoyment of a story where the trampled-on person, safely out of the way, is having her spiritual triumph. I just can’t help but look at it from a couple of different points of view.
MG: Yeah. Sometimes when you go to what seems to be the opposite of your point of view, a whole gets created. MS: Something which I see in your work as well— we’ve touched on this already—is the way that stories can heal. I wonder if there have been times in your life where you have felt healed by a story. MG: Healed is perhaps a little too strong a word.
MS: A lot of the women in your stories are people who, by contemporary society’s standards, are failures. The protagonist of “The Agonized Face”—
MG: Nourished. Stories or books which I find most satisfying in that way are those that fully express something. Sometimes human life seems so partial or incapable of full expression, of whatever is at the core essence of a person or situation. I feel a level of frustration with that, so when I see someone who is able to give full expression to whatever it is—I mean expression to the point of being able to glimpse those things that are always going to be outside our range of vision . . . There’s nothing more profoundly satisfying to me.
MG: Well, actually Alison in Veronica would be a better example of that. The person in “The Agonized Face” has been married, she has a child, she’s working a job that many would find glamorous. She may not have an ideal life, but certainly, by social standards, she is not a loser. Before Veronica was published, I was talking about the manuscript with a publicist who I don’t think liked it much. She said at one point, “Well, Alison has nothing.” I was shocked at that, but it’s true—she’s living much worse off than the woman in “The Agonized Face.” She’s on welfare, she’s ill, she doesn’t appear to have many friends, she’s never been married, she doesn’t have children—these are the building blocks in the most conventional sense of how women are defined as being successful or not. By those standards, she really doesn’t have anything. Yet, she’s learned so much from her life experience and is someone who can have a deep experience just walking through the woods—not everybody can do that. MS: In an essay about Nabokov you said, “Sometimes I write from the point of view of characters whom I would dislike as people, not as a perverse exercise but because this cracks the story open and makes me see it in a way that I would not see it naturally.” Is that the case with the narrator of “The Agonized Face”?
On Himmelskibet Hill, Mars by David Clarkson
From Earth, Mars is a planet of photographs. Artists will find art in these images, and scientists science—certain truths will be revealed to each. It is a place that can only be explored by viewing oddly unfolding pictures—whether NASA's, Hollywood's, or those unexpectedly encountered in BOMB. NASA has been particularly busy on Mars lately—making many pictures and naming landmarks. With no one on Mars to disagree, and no patrons to commemorate, explorers of Mars are mostly free to name rocks as they like. And this is how it should be, I think. Not long ago, a rock-covered ridge (adjacent to McCool Hill in the McMurdo Panorama) was photographed for the first time and named by a NASA science group. Among many rocks visible in the photos, four were given names—Orcadas, Juan Carlos, Castilla, and Primero—after locations in Antarctica. In these drawings based on NASA rover photos, I have given Low Ridge a different name: Himmelskibet Hill, after the Danish "sky ship" which first traveled to Mars in 1917. I also have named numerous rocks left unnamed above: David Clarkson, View of McCool Hill, 2008, ink on paper.
pages 67–70: David Clarkson, Views of Himmelskibet Hill, 2008, ink on paper.
by NASA for the first time here. Besides, I have supplied the four NASA-named rocks with supplemental aliases because sometimes confusion can help reveal chaotic truths hidden beneath order by making us look more closely at what we take for granted. All the new names I propose refer to films that tell stories about Mars—these names remind us that sci-fi cinema has explored the potential significance of this place already in pictures that are historical, endlessly present, and of the future. In 1982, Jack Goldstein said that "art should be a trailer for the future." Since then, several famous futures have come and gone but what he said remains chaotically true. Art is not timeless but, rather, may be recurrently renewed, like the future. This project is dedicated to that memorable idea. —David Clarkson Watch David Clarkson's video Colony, in which a squadron of red ants explores NASA landscape imagery of Mars, only at BOMBsite.com.
bomb specific / David clarkson
Himmelskibet Hill 01 A Trip to Mars Rock 02
A Message from Mars Rock 03 Queen Aelita/Russian Rock 05
Radio-Mania Rock 04
Ming of Mongo 07 Just Imagine Rock 06 Purple Monster 09
Rocketship X-M Rock 10 War of the Worlds Rock 14 Flying Disc Man Rock 11
Flight to Mars Rock 12
Invaders from Mars Rock 15
Zombie of the Stratosphere 13
Devil Girl Rock 16
Orcadas Conquest of Space 17
Terrible It 18
Angry Red Rock 20
Battle of the Worlds 21 Santa Claus Rock 23
Nebotite Zovyotium 19
Battle Beyond the Sun 22
The Wizard of Mars 24 Castilla Robinson Crusoe On Mars 26
Space Frankenstein Rock 27
Los Marcianos Roca 28
Queen of Blood 29
Juan Carlos Hobbs End 31
Deadly Diaphonoid Rock 30 Mars Needs Women Rock
Primero X From Outer Space Rock 33
bomb specific / David clarkson
Alpha Incident Rock 36
Mission Mars Rock 34 Candy Clark Rock 35
Fake Rock 37 Toxic Spawn Rock 38 Total Recall Rock 40
Ultrarock 2000 42 Crystal Star 39
Randyâ€™s Rock 41
The E.Y.E.S. of Mars 43
Mars Attacks Rock 45 Journey to Mars Rock
Species II Rock 46 Alpha City 47 My Favorite Martian Rock 48
Red Planet Rock 49
Ghosts of Mars 51 Mission To Mars Rock 50 Dual Matrix Rock 52
BOMB 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58
Stranded Spanish Rock 53
Lost Rock 54
Infestation From Mars 55
Mars Daybreak Rock 56
Red Crimsonite 57
Dwayne the Rock 58
Das Himmelskibet (aka The Sky Ship), Denmark, 1918 A Trip to Mars, USA, 1910 A Message From Mars, UK, 1913 M.A.R.S., (re-released as Radio-Mania), USA, 1923 Aelita: Queen of Mars, Soviet Union, 1924 Just Imagine, USA, 1930 Flash Gordon: Mars Attacks the World, USA, 1938 Flash Gordon: Deadly Ray From Mars, USA, 1938 The Purple Monster Strikes, USA, 1945 Rocketship X-M, USA, 1950 Flying Disc Man From Mars, USA, 1950 Flight To Mars, USA, 1951 Zombies of the Stratosphere, USA, 1952 The War of the Worlds, USA, 1953 Invaders From Mars, USA, 1953 Devil Girl From Mars, UK, 1954 Conquest of Space, USA, 1955 It! The Terror From Beyond Space, USA, 1958 Nebo Zovyot, Soviet Union, 1959 The Angry Red Planet, USA, 1960 Battle of the Worlds, Italy, 1961 Battle Beyond the Sun, USA/Soviet Union, 1963 Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, USA, 1964 The Wizard of Mars, USA, 1965 I Marziani Hanno Dodici Mani, Italy/Spain, 1964 Robinson Crusoe On Mars, USA, 1964 Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, USA, 1965 Santo Contra la Invasion de los Marcianos, Mexico, 1966 Queen of Blood (aka Planet of Blood), USA, 1966 The Deadly Diaphonoids, Italy, 1966 Quatermass and the Pit, UK, 1967 Mars Needs Women, USA, 1967 The X From Outer Space, Japan, 1967 Mission Mars, USA, 1968 The Man Who Fell To Earth, USA, 1976 The Alpha Incident, USA, 1977 Capricorn One, USA/UK, 1978 Contamination (aka Toxic Spawn), Italy/Germany, 1980 Star Crystal, USA, 1986 Total Recall, USA, 1990 Martians Go Home, USA, 1990 Ultracop 2000, Hong Kong/Philippines, 1992 The E.Y.E.S. of Mars, Japan/France, 1993 Special Report: Journey to Mars, USA, 1996 Mars Attacks!, USA, 1996 Species II, USA, 1998 Mars, USA, 1998 My Favorite Martian, USA, 1999 Red Planet, USA/Australia, 2000 Mission to Mars, USA, 2000 John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, USA, 2001 Armitage III: Dual Matrix, Japan, 2002 Stranded (aka Náufragos), Spain, 2002 Lost on Mars, USA, 2002 Close Encounters: Infestation From Mars, USA, 2004 The Mars Daybreak, Japan, 2004 Crimson Force, USA, 2005 Doom, 2005, USA, 2005
top: La Leçon d'amour, 2008, C-print, 47 ½ × 59 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery.
left: Something You Can Feel, 2008, rhinestone, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 96 × 120 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery.
right: I Though You Said You Were Leaving, 2006, rhinestone, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 72 × 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist, private collection.
artists on artists / Mickalene Thomas by Kara Walker
Interspersed within my few remaining early issues of Ebony magazine from the ’70s are faded liquor and cigarette advertisements, rich with period visions of black urban cool. These belie a voracious hunger for entry to a realm of sophistication and wealth—the satisfaction of a perfect afro and cocoa-butter skin—contra the grind of civil rights initiatives and struggles announced in the black and white articles buttressing them. In the early ’70s a new social awareness within both feminist and African-American liberation circles of the unique forms of oppression suffered by Black women necessitated that women of color define Black feminism once and for all. Alice Walker put forth the term “womanist,” suggesting an outrageous and audacious woman, one who loves other women, sexually or not. Seventies Blaxploitation films like Cleopatra Jones, with its gun-toting heroine, capitalized on this burgeoning racial pride, problematically merging a miasma of competing interests, most obviously Black power and female lack. Mickalene Thomas’s chocolate-colored sisters with statuesque thighs, supple flesh, and meandering hair announce the promise of womanist agency. The spaceage domestics or mother Africa soul searchers of her odalisque photos are draped over sofas and swathed in layers of contrasting “exotic” prints—a porn trope as much as it was a fact of ’70s interior design. Thomas’s bodies begin as substrata, canvases to a libidinal urge reminiscent of depictions of the Other in early photography and pornography (and, in turn, historical photographs’ mimicry of Western painting traditions). But, while relying on the familiar arrangements of white-male painting tradition, Thomas allows her photographic compositions to spiral inward, away from the superficial tropes of exotica, toward the complex sexuality of her models. Situated in a woodpaneled setting redolent of a recreation room or a nowdated interior redesign—familiar to a child of the ’70s like Thomas—each photograph layers pride and resistance. A formerly exploitative gaze—Manet’s Olympia, Matisse’s odalisques—becomes the frame for a kind of postwomanist self-consciousness. Wood paneling likewise pervades Thomas’s rhinestone, acrylic, and enamel paintings (many based
on her photos). It is this ubiquitous visual which formally announces the constraints of nostalgia. Like her photos, Thomas’s paintings signal nostalgia for that transitional moment when desire, individuation, and upward mobility press against Blaxploitation. Adhering to the limits of a seductively glittering picture plane, Thomas’s soul sisters gaze out from between contrasting arrays of color and pattern. In her hands, the Black woman is both a bright and polished Ebony ideal and a picture of womanist yearning. Posed in a sassy Pointer Sister contrapposto suggestive of dignity and self-assurance—and physically covered in bling—Thomas is proposing that playful juxtapositions of personal memory and historical example are the constructs of Black beauty . . . and that such juxtapositions should scintillate and dazzle as only what’s truly longed for can. —Kara Walker is an artist living in New York. Walker’s work will be in upcoming shows at the Houston Museum of Contemporary Arts; the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska; and the Frye Museum in Seattle.
The Artists on Artists Series is sponsored by the W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.
above: Cosmic Slop, 2008, board, wax, black soap, 82 × 96 inches. Images courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection, Miami,
Florida and Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York.
below: I Who Have Nothing, 2008, shelves, wax, black soap, shea butter, mixed media, 48 × 48 × 12 inches.
artists on artists / rashid johnson by Sanford Biggers
Young artist seeks audience to enjoy poly-conscious attempts at post-medium condition production.
simple aesthetics and humor are not what he is all about, and to isolate his works into solitary objects or categories does a disservice to the collective impact of his creative practice, courage, and swagger. Johnson’s work is discussed frequently within the context of post-Black art. Only a few brave souls have ventured into his Afro-Futurist universe (a very tempting approach during this centenary year of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto); however, I find another precedent more apropos. In the 1930s Aimé Césaire, LéonGontran Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor started the literary and artistic movement Negritude to liberate and revalorize the history and identity of people of the African diaspora. Johnson’s use of Black arcana may seem pure fabrication to those less informed with the annals of undisclosed African-American contributions conveniently overlooked by history. I, however, believe his charge is not dissimilar to that of the Negritude founders. Johnson elevates, negates, and complicates normative notions of “Blackness.” Interestingly enough, criticism of Negritude came from those who believed it defined Blackness by a white aesthetic standard and not an independently Black one. It is somewhere in the nexus of this conundrum that Johnson’s Eshu dances.
So reads the invitation to Rashid Johnson’s 2008 solo exhibition The Dead Lecturer at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York. He later calls for “an audience with a good attention span that is willing to stay with me through the good and the bad.” Johnson often does what many of us only think about. His irreverence reminds us that we are supposed to be having fun . . . right? But it would be folly to mistake Johnson’s precociousness for the musings of yet another art-world enfant terrible, all shock and no substance. I first met Johnson when we both exhibited in Thelma Golden’s now legendary Freestyle show at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. We became fast friends over a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in a basement bar in Manhattan. Though he was the youngest artist in the show, he had already been exhibiting commercially for a few years prior in Chicago and was developing an alchemical lexicon of symbols and references. I was impressed with the wit and brazenness of his early photograms of chicken bones and portraits of ashy feet—the former a weathered stereotype (black catnip, if you will), the latter a reference to the bane of all black folk (or at least their mothers). Since he was already an artist with a significant exhibition record, I was shocked (in an admiring way) when in 2003 he decided to pursue an MFA, a move that most professional artists would scoff at. Truth be told, Johnson is a thinker and trickster, part intellect, part Eshu Elegba.* Though his photographs are exquisite, his output is not always a pretty affair. The series of Cosmic Slop works is cheeky in its nod to Malevich, Reinhardt, and P-Funk, and intricately referential in its medium. Johnson’s use of black wax and black soap makes a connection both to the universe’s unassimilable dark matter and early ’70s soul compilations like Black Stars on Wax. His spray-painted text “drawings” are thin, his installations sometimes uneven, and his Civil Rights All Stars and Uncle Tom All Stars series (jerseys for Black historical figures like Angela Davis or Clarence Thomas) are just plain funny. But
*An African trickster deity that is a guide to and guard of the crossroads of earthly existence and the afterlife. —Sanford Biggers is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work integrates film/video, installation, sculpture, music, and performance. He is presently Assistant Professor of Sculpture and Expanded Media at Virginia Commonwealth University and a Visiting Scholar of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University.
BOMB by Marcella Durand
Blinkey's Cousin, 2007, enamel on linen, 48 Ă— 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.
artists on artists / joyce pensato Joyce Pensato starts with the most iconic cartoon figures—Mickey, Minnie, Daffy, Krazy, Stan, and Homer—but her representations of them couldn’t be further from their usual plastic media. Her figures are not so much “animated” as—to steal a term from John Ashbery’s poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”—déconfit. Duck confit is a delicious dish made from duck leg, but what, exactly, is duck déconfit? Perhaps it’s something like Pensato’s paintings—animal and “human” personages anthropomorphized into the barest semblances of themselves, erased (to use Pensato’s own language), and re-represented, brutally, in the grammar of “high” art, with the painterly strokes and complex surfaces of abstract expressionism. Thus worlds collide: cartoon is wrenched into the realm of de Kooning, Pollock, Mitchell, Guston. Pensato’s paintings are not kitschy, mocking, or snarky. They escape all that. Rather, they’re tragicomic— her subjects are clowns within the tragic situation of their own paper-thin representation-as-existence. (“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way,” says Jessica Rabbit, summarizing the problem of cartoon world: you’re drawn, therefore you are.) Duck-Mouse is a gruesome, almost genetically combined amalgamation of cartoon characters, with one arm happily waving out of Pensato’s tightly wound composition of circle-ears, circle-eyes, and giant circle-body. Welcome is even more chaotically alarming— “Mickey” floats in space with a big ducky grin and arms spread wide, but his legs are gone, replaced with a giant, reversed ass. Yet these are no ordinary cheeks: their circumferences are asymmetric and askew, lines thinning and thickening, always gesturing toward abstraction. Cartoons depend so much on their own plastic surface, and this is something Pensato vigorously takes on, using the eraser as a tool in its own right to transform any semblance of plasticity or sheen. Her palette of pastels
Al's Nephew, 2008, charcoal on wall, 21 × 23 inches.
and charcoal is limited, another push against the full fluorescent spectrum of cartoons. The figures are reduced down to what could be thought of as their “essence,” if cartoons had essence, and then pushed outward again by Pensato’s strong hand: Homer ’08 has the eyes, bald pate, and mouth recognizable to watchers of The Simpsons, but the texture and surface of the piece is all about painting and its visual engagement. The evening I visited Pensato’s recent exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery—closing night, actually—Pensato herself was filming a woman do a mock-run past one of her pieces. Some of Pensato’s titles—Get Me to the Other Side, Going to the Other Side, On the Way—reference this constant traversal between “low” and “high” art, a division that stays surprisingly potent as new high/low art forms continue to evolve. Cartoons can easily seem dated—and outdated—but Pensato’s work moves through temporal boundaries into a more timeless arena: the “other side” of art. —Marcella Durand is a poet and essayist. Two collections recently out are Traffic & Weather (Futurepoem) and AREA (Belladonna). She lives in New York with her husband and son.
Missing Cat, 2008, charcoal and pastel on paper, 30 × 22 ½ inches.
BOMB by Steve Lambert
The Yes Men are America’s foremost impostors. Since the mid-’90s the duo has bluffed their way into corporate conferences and television interviews in the guise of top-level executives. Waltzing though security in thrift–store suits, they restitute the injustices and corruption of corporate and governmental power elites. After they're escorted out, the future they've forecast is injected into the evening news. Their work as unauthorized spokespeople has found Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum declaring on BBC television—as a Dow Chemical representative—that the chemical manufacturer would dedicate $12 billion in reparations to victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India. In 2006, they arrived in New Orleans as HUD representatives to announce that 5,000 units of affordable public housing slated for demolition would be maintained. Absurdist mischief-makers or utopian visionaries? A little of both; the Yes Men select their targets because they propagate economic imbalance—or worse—deprive citizens of a voice with corporate smokescreens. Their slant toward collective utopia has dovetailed into and influenced my own art. For the past five years we’ve been working on parallel paths: turning real situations into temporary utopias. When we found ourselves at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center together in 2007, it didn't take long to hatch a plan. Between February and November of 2008, Bichlbaum and I coordinated the New York Times Special Edition. In November, our mock version of the Times was distributed around the country, announcing the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a maximum wage, a new national public transit system, and 14 more pages of good news. I spoke to Bichlbaum and fellow Yes Man Mike Bonanno as they were preparing for the premiere of their second film, The Yes Men Fix the World, at Sundance. —Steve Lambert
The YES men
theater / the yes men
teve Lambert: I suppose we should start by saying S that you’re at the Sundance Film Festival and I’m in my pajamas in Brooklyn.
Andy Bichlbaum: Right, that’s the situation.
SL: What are you guys doing at Sundance?
AB: Trying to find the festival headquarters! But I guess in the bigger sense. . . wait, let me actually ask these people. (Addresses strangers.) Do you guys happen to know which direction the headquarters is? It’s that way? It’s not that way. Yeah, maybe, maybe not. Anyway, Steve, our film is premiering here. It’s the world premiere of The Yes Men Fix the World in like, a few hours. Mike Bonanno: Minor detail.
state across the country. So, what are you hoping for with the new film?
L: I was thinking we could start in left field. Has S Sacha Baron Cohen's success affected either the way that you work or the subjects you go after?
AB: It would be great to have it picked up by a big distributor. But we’re also going to try to control its distribution. We’re going to try to be more in charge of how it’s actually put out there. There’s so much work involved in making a movie and putting it out there. It’s kind of nonstop, just a humongous enterprise. And if you don’t have money, like we don’t, then it’s really difficult. So if someone picks it up and goes with it, that will be a relief even if they don’t do the job we’re hoping they will.
AB: Not really.
L: What about how your work is received and S understood? Did it become a reference point? Do people see your stuff and say “Oh, this is like Borat?”
MB: After seeing clips of ours recently one guy told us we were “a thinking man's Borat,” and another said we were “Borat with balls.” So what does that make us?
AB: It’s an easy analogy to make if someone totally doesn’t get it, but I think there’s a big difference between what we do and what Sacha Baron Cohen does. Everything we do is for the message; it’s the message above all, and comical techniques can convey it. Borat obviously has a message, but it’s not always clear what it is. You get the feeling it’s really not the main thing about the movie. Even when there’s a message about racism and intolerance, the ways of communicating the message are very different.
L: If it’s so much work then why do it? It seems like S your forte is the action part of it, right? Why even bother with the movie?
AB: Well, it’s the logical outcome. Honestly, if I’d known how much work it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
L: United Artists put out your movie The Yes Men in S 2003; that’s quite an accomplishment.
L: But you had already made a feature-length movie S before.
AB: Okay, good. What was your question?
AB: No, the first film was made by Chris Smith, Sarah Price, and Dan Olman. The reason to do a movie is because it can have even more of an impact than media stories do. People pay attention to media stories for a few minutes or an hour and maybe remember them a couple days later, if you’re lucky. But a movie can stick with you for life. When people pay attention to something for an hour and a half . . . (Trails off distractedly.) I just want to see what time it is. Oh, God. I hope the bus gets there.
AB: Wait, let me stand up and ask where I am. (Addresses the bus driver.) Have we passed the Sundance Festival Headquarters at the Marriott? Bus Driver: We haven’t, but we will very soon.
L: You had mixed feelings about how The Yes Men S movie was supported, right? Maybe United didn’t back you quite as much as you’d hoped. At the same time, you’re also at every Blockbuster in every red
SL: I’m sure it will.
AB: We’re meeting people for brunch and then I have to run back to the place and get ready for the premiere.
Television still of the Yes Men's Andy Bichlbaum on the BBC News, 2004.
above: Still from The Yes Men Fix the World, 2009. The Yes Men in Bhopal, India.
below: Mike Bonanno (left) and Andy Bichlbaum. Gulf Coast Reconstruction Conference, 2006.
theater / the yes men MB: That's why we're carrying this huge load of the fake New York Times newspapers we made with you, Steve. The brunch is being hosted by the real New York Times, and we want people to be able to read a real message of hope instead of business as usual.
MB: Yes, we got accused of being very bad boys by people who thought that we had created false hopes among the victims. But we actually went to India to meet the victims, and found out that it wasn't that simple.
SL: Excellent. So you’ve printed up another run of the newspapers. Are you going to hand those out at the festival?
MB: You will have to see the movie for that. Let's just say The Yes Men Fix the World has the most joyful strangulation you will ever see in a documentary.
MB: Yeah. So people can read “all the news we hope to print.” After the fake New York Times was distributed in New York, there were thousands of requests for copies, so we saw there was a huge demand. We thought Sundance would be a good place to keep the dreams alive. Especially since the Times is a major Sundance sponsor and they have newspaper dispensers everywhere. We also plan to hand them out at every one of their functions.
AB: In reality, we got tons of press for their causes— around 1,000 pieces in US press. That was the goal, to put pressure on Dow. SL: It was hugely embarrassing for them. I know you guys were working on how to present a year’s worth of public stunts in the film. How did you create a narrative that connects them all?
AB: At our own functions, too. Spread the joy. We’re going to give them to everybody leaving the theater. The movie ends with the newspapers, so it sort of acts as a coda. It’s nice to have the things printed so people can look at them afterward. You’re in the movie, Steve.
SL: What do you mean?
AB: Five years, actually. The narrative is about our thing, trying to fix the world. The Dow Chemical one was an early piece—2004—and we set out to show that a corporation could behave well by taking responsibility for a disaster of that magnitude. The best way to do this was impersonating a Dow executive on BBC television and announcing that we’re actually going to do what we should do in Bhopal . . . (Trails off.) Oh shit, I’ve made a mistake. Hold on, I’m going deal with this while you’re on the line. Let me see if I can get this bus. Oh, I guess not. Oops. Running . . . running . . . (Catches breath.) Anyway, after the BBC segment, we found out that the stock value of the company plunged.
SL: Yeah, yeah—not really.
AB: (laughter) Go figure. MB: But the actual newspaper does give people a feeling. Holding it makes people feel like the good news in it really is possible. SL: I know, it's like when it's in print, then it's real. Like when people read this interview, they'll believe we really had this conversation. Anyway, would you say that's a goal of what you do: making people see what is possible?
SL: Yes, capitalism doesn't seem to inherently favor honesty and responsibility, does it? MB: We’ve realized that what we really need to do is change the rules of the system. So we interview people at the core of the free market system who happen to be destroying the planet. Eventually, we end up realizing that we all really have to make change happen.
AB: Yeah. That's it. We have been conditioned to think that change can't happen. But it can. Like when I went on the BBC impersonating a representative from Dow Chemical and announced that, finally, after 20 years without doing a thing, they were going to clean up the site of the world's worst industrial accident.
AB: Right. Just by making that announcement, people would have to think “Why doesn't Dow do that? Why isn't it possible?”
SL: In New Orleans you did something similar and that same “false hopes” claim came up again. Impersonating HUD representatives, you announced that a huge amount of public housing that was supposed to be demolished would be kept. I think Mayor Nagin actually spoke out against you. Were the “hopes” you were proposing in New Orleans really that far from the realm of possibility?
SL: But you caught a lot of flack for that didn't you? People accusing you of creating “false hopes,” arguing that the victims of the accident heard the announcement and were devastated when they learned it wasn't true.
MB: What we proposed was just what any sane person would, if they saw what was going on down there. After Katrina, public-housing residents tried to return home and found themselves locked out by the government—even though the buildings they lived in had almost no damage.
MB: The Bhopal catastrophe.
we scam our way in by con job, basically. Once we actually just Googled “speaking opportunities.” What do you do when you see people locked out of their homes? It’s a no-brainer. So on the first anniversary of Katrina we weaseled our way into a big conference and announced that the government was going to take the locks off. We announced a bunch of other things too, like a plan to fix schools, the reopening of the public hospital, and restoration of the wetlands that used to protect New Orleans from storms. All of these things are not only possible, they are the only sane things to do.
interpreted as a hoax. But there doesn’t seem to be a word for it. You guys came up with . . . what was it? Oh, “identity correction.” AB: Yeah, we tried that. It’s okay, just a bit artificial. People actually started using it, though. I just fall back on the word “action.” Fortunately, when people are watching things or hearing about them, they don’t think about what it’s called.
SL: The idea of presenting what should happen as normal and letting the reaction against it demonstrate the point that the world we have is actually what's out of whack . . . I think you two have really mastered that tactic. It's one of the big ideas I had taken from your work and it influences a lot of my projects. I think for all of us, the newspaper became almost like a thesis for testing that idea.
SL: And when they can’t figure it out, it makes them think about it a little bit longer. In a way, naming something is a way to file it away and stop thinking about it. Maybe that works in our favor. Another thing I wanted to ask is how much can you plan what you do? At the beginning of the year do you think, “We should really go after these people and set goals?” Or are you more like fishermen, with all these lines cast through your websites, just waiting for something to bite?
AB: That's why we wanted to work on it. And to communicate that we all have to make sure that change happens; that electing Obama isn’t enough. It’s great, but it’s not enough. We just have to make sure that we actually make the change happen that we elected him to make. SL: Yes. Part of that is reminding people of what, hopefully, they already know—that change comes from popular pressure. That, collectively, we have power.
AB: Honestly, it just sort of happens. Like when you and I came up with the newspaper idea, it was just spontaneous. For example, we got invited by an activist group to give a talk up in Alberta. We did a bit of research and found out about the oil industry there. They're extracting oil from the sand in a way that's incredibly polluting, three times more than regular oil extraction. So we thought, Well, instead of just giving a talk, let’s do a conference thing, an action. So we did that.
MB: Yes, seven whoops and a holler for that.
SL: It's great that your very serious ideas can be incorporated into something that can be fun and make people laugh. Every once in a while people will call what I do “pranks.” I’m okay with it, but it’s not the right word, and I was wondering what you think when people call what you guys do a prank or a hoax.
AB: You know what we did, Steve.
SL: Did what?
SL: Yeah but, you know, this is for a magazine.
AB: For a magazine!? I retract everything I said earlier. MB: I’ll settle this. We impersonated ExxonMobil and got ourselves invited to give the keynote address at the largest oil conference in Canada. At the conference we unveiled a new product called “Vivoleum” that was a biofuel made from the human victims of climate change.
AB: I don’t like it, either. But I don’t know what a better word is. We’re basically trying to change the world using creative techniques, trying to do something creative to make an impact in the media or in the world. I don’t see how that’s really a prank. A prank seems like something you do just for the hell of it. I have a real problem with that. And the commercial prank system thinks it’s something you do for profit. A hoax is all about fooling people; what you do and what we do isn’t about fooling people—it’s actually about informing them.
AB: This time we really wanted to shock them, so we made sure that when they found out about the new product every one of them was already holding a lit candle made from the stuff. They were really made from regular wax with a bunch of human hair in it for the smell. They were also watching a video tribute to Reggie Watts, who we told them was an Exxon janitor who gave his life to make the candles.
SL: But you fool people for a minute in order to get them to analyze or change their perspective. There is always a part of what we’re doing that has some humor, right? Maybe that’s why it’s so often
MB: Reggie is actually an amazing stand-up comedian and musician. If you haven't seen his act, you have to.
theater / the yes men
L: How much can you plan once a fish is on the S line? I mean, there's probably a lot of research you have to do before you go give this speech in front of hundreds of people. How quickly are you turning around Halliburton Surviv-a-Balls and Reggie Watts candles?
don't think too much about it.
MB: It all depends on the situation. For the Dow thing on the BBC we had about five days. But usually we have a couple of months or more before a conference. And we always seem to take as long as we have.
L: So you do try to get invited to certain conferences. S You don’t always wait for them to invite you.
MB: Yeah, we barely have pants at all, really. Anyone could do stuff like this, and in our movies that comes through, I think.
AB: No, we don’t usually wait like we used to. Now we actually scam our way in.
AB: Which encourages a lot of activists, not necessarily because they want to use the same methods, but because they see how the world of big business is not a fortress . . . it’s a house of cards.
SL: How do you do that?
AB: Con job, basically. We call up and we say we’re a public-relations firm whose client really wants to talk at this thing: you know, “Exxon would like to address your conference.” We’ll say we’re a very high-profile person. But at the last moment we’ll call and say that person can’t go. That’s been the most common way recently. Once we actually just Googled “speaking opportunities.”
SL: (laughter) It’s that easy?
SL: Have you ever paid?
L: Yeah, but all the noise and confusion! It sounds S exciting! I'm just looking down at a garbage truck here in Brooklyn.
AB: Yeah, but we’d better try to figure out where the fuck we are.
AB: Once. We were ashamed. (laughter)
L: Now that the movie is done, have you guys been S thinking about where you want your work to go next?
AB: Not coherently, no . . . Main Street? We’re back at Main Street? This is insane. The conditions here just turned south. This is ridiculous.
AB: It’s that easy, yeah. You can fill out a form. Sometimes you have to pay to talk at these conferences.
SL: Are the projects that have been big in the media—Dow Chemical and New Orleans, most obviously—are those working against a secondary message you are trying to communicate to activists? Which is that this strategy might be worth considering, and that it's totally within reach? Neither of you have any real formal training as “imposters” and from what I have gathered hanging around y'all for the past year is that this is very much a seat-ofthe-pants operation.
L: So, when you two are doing these speaking gigs, S do you basically play the same character each time? I know for each one you have to use different names, but as “actors” do you imagine them to be the same people? What goes into creating these businessmen characters?
SL: Well, try to have fun today.
AB: Okay, we’ll try. MB: Don't forget to take out the garbage!
MB: If you look at someone like Jack Nicholson, he always seems like he is sort of the same even when he is playing different characters. I think we must be something like that. AB: Except that we can't act. MB: Right. What I meant was that if we were actors, it might be like that. The fact is that we have no clue what we are doing when we are up there. Luckily, the audiences think we really are who we say we are, so there is no need to act at all. And our character development has no particular method. It’s there in some intuitive way, but we
By cory arcangel
Oliveros in Cologne, Germany, 2008. Photo: IONE.
above: Oliveros with John Baldessariâ€™s Beethovenâ€™s Trumpet (With Ear) at the Kunstverein in Bonn, Germany. Photo: IONE.
below: IONE and Pauline Oliveros in Kanazawa, Japan. Photo: Heroko Ikeda.
music / pauline oliveros
For more than 50 years Pauline Oliveros, a pioneering American composer, has been at the forefront of composition, improvisation, education, and meditation. Recently Oliveros’s practice has been defined by “Deep Listening,” which merges the disparate fields of improvisation and spirituality. Deep Listening is a philosophy of sound awareness that recognizes the difference between involuntary hearing and the process of concentrated selection that is listening. It introduces environmental sounds into the listening vocabulary in the form of improvisation. Her Deep Listening Band is celebrating its 20th anniversary with concerts in New York this April (with Roscoe Mitchell) and in Seattle in May. Pauline has created works in electronic music and experimental composition that stand as turning points for each genre—from playing the accordion in collaboration with the moon, to her iconic early series Sonic Meditations (ephemeral compositions focused on collaboration), to pioneering work in the genre of electronic improvisation. I will always remember the day in 1999 that I met Pauline. I was enrolled in her class at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She walked into the room and unfolded a brand new Wall Street model Macintosh Powerbook. Presiding over this rarely seen, top-of-theline laptop, she proceeded to tell us how she started working with electronic music when sounds were still recorded onto wire spools. That’s Pauline. She has been at the fore of technology during every decade she has worked in, and because of her humor and natural tendency to pioneer, she transcends any particular historical moment. —Cory Arcangel
ory Arcangel: Of course we stop talking now that C the pressure is on.
“composition” or “counterpoint” or “performance.” It was a way of being that involved listening to others and the world . . . and responding. What are your classes like now?
Pauline Oliveros: Well, let’s begin by saying we’re celebrating ten years of friendship since you were in my class at Oberlin in 1999.
PO: I’m still practicing what I preach. I teach a Deep Listening class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that has become very popular. I have engineers, physicists— everything under the sun that technology school teaches— in the class. Some of them are really good musicians and then some of them are EMAC students—that’s electronic media and communications. But the class, by and large, is unwashed.
CA: I still have such memories of that class. The funny thing is that you didn’t teach, exactly; you ran the class in this other way. I don’t remember any assignments or homework or anything in line with other types of class structures that were in the conservatory. There was no plan, but there was definitely a system.
PO: I try to teach without teaching. I get my students to do things, both individually and collaboratively.
PO: Not necessarily well-versed in the arts. They come in and do what they do. My book really lays out what I teach in that course. I do have a plan, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like one because it’s non-linear. I still want there to be improvisation. So, in the Deep Listening class I teach experiencing a heightened awareness of sound and sounding and silence, without drugs. We do energy exercises based on Qigong, Tai Chi, yoga, and other movements. Moving the body is essential and basic to heightened awareness. Energy refers to heat, electricity, and magnetism, and the exercises promote a feeling of flow in the body. What happens is that your own serotonin—dopamine—is released when you experience the pleasure of listening and you don’t necessarily need anything to amplify that, although some people need drugs to break through to the point where they can
A: I read an article of yours where you proposed C a curriculum and while I was reading it, I was like, That’s exactly what our class was.
PO: Well, I wrote that article because I was giving a keynote address at the University of California, San Diego for “Improvising Across Borders,” the first conference ever given on improvisation in a university. Now that particular article is published in DJ Spooky’s book Sound Unbound.
A: The thing I took away from your class was about C living more, about how to conduct yourself on a daily basis. It sounds crazy, but I just remember thinking about creativity as something bigger than
BOMB have that experience. It’s why there’s so much drugging going on in the student population. Deep Listening is an inexpensive, healthful, and accessible alternative to drugs. Drugs take over the body whereas the effects of Deep Listening come from one’s own abilities. It’s accessible to anyone who is willing to sincerely try.
that—Michael confided to me that he wanted to learn how to play the accordion. I managed to loan him a free-bass accordion, a really good one, so it really sounds fantastic, and he’s learning to play all sorts of pieces on it, including Terry Riley keyboard studies. Anyway, let me see if I can describe this session yesterday, because there is a point to my story. Michael started working with a Disklavier, as I said, and he’s doing a version of the Expanded Instrument System (EIS) that is his own. My version of EIS has 40 delays with algorithmic controllers that can determine how many delays sound, the durations of the delays, how and when the delayed signals are modulated. Michael’s system is MIDI driven, so he can play the piano and a middle pedal captures what he plays and then the piano will start to play with him. Then you get inversions and retrogrades of the material that he played. So he plays for about 20 minutes on this piece and then he gets up and he walks away and the piano still plays. I asked what he learned by having this other entity responding to him and he talked about the pleasure of it. There is something very compelling about the mirroring and elaboration of working with machines in this interdependent interactive way. I know that it makes me happy.
CA: Yeah, totally, I remember doing movements, listening in the dark . . . all stuff I would have never done in any other setting. It was great. At that point in my schooling I wasn’t very open to new things, but somehow in your class, I was up for whatever. I want to talk about your style of improvisation because it is definitely related. It could be considered the same thing as listening. PO: It is, definitely. I mean that my improvisation is based in listening to all that I can perceive inside and outside of myself before I make a sound—or silence. Maintaining that level of listening is basic to my improvising. CA: On your website you wonder about what Data from Star Trek would be like as an improviser. Do you still think about things like that? PO: Oh, absolutely, all the time. Lieutenant Commander Data can, of course, play and analyze music perfectly. The challenge in my mind is about the possibility of his ability to be creative—or to improvise. With all his number crunching and analysis, this ability seems to be elusive— just like emotions. Data is mystified by emotions and emotions are missing from his program. So my speculation is that Data, the android, is simply not equipped to improvise.
CA: You would know—you’ve been using electronics for a long time. PO: A long time, since the ’60s, when I started with tape delay. Then I wanted to challenge myself to hear more than just what I could play normally on accordion. I had been doing that already in terms of venues because I’d listen to the space and figure out what I could get back from it. Different spaces give you different qualities, so you play differently. With electronics, it gradually got to the point where I’ve now got a system that gives me a lot back, but it’s really challenging.
CA: Maybe I should give you a better question. I’m improvising. PO: That’s what I like; that’s where I’m most comfortable. Have you been yet to EMPAC, RPI’s big new experimental music center?
CA: So the EIS system, an interactive music system that you developed in the ’60s, is a series of delays and audio controls hooked up to foot pedals. The system allows you to do all kinds of manipulations to the sound of your instrument. You can fabricate the sound of new spaces, add delay, and so on. Over the years, how much do you tweak it? Do you still use the EIS system?
CA: I heard it’s just gorgeous.
PO: Cory, you have to come up. It’s great. I was there yesterday to see my colleague Michael Century. Michael has had a little residency going for himself at EMPAC, and he’s been having a fantastic time with the Disklavier—a piano that can play by itself—and has started to play the accordion. He’s transformed himself after a long stint of administrative work (pushing data around), opening up the pleasure centers in his brain by making and playing music. Michael’s administrative work and intellectual interests kept him with too little time to devote to his creative music-making. Though he’s been playing the piano since he was a little kid—he went through academic training at a conservatory, all of
PO: Oh, yeah. I still use it and tweak it a lot. It’s a continuing evolution. No matter how much I do to it, I want more because there are just endless things you can do. It’s about the human/machine relationship or interface—the power of technology to expand the mind. You find solutions to creative problems and those solutions lead you into new territory where new solutions have to be found. For example: how can you make sound that flies from around your feet on the floor, up to the ceiling, and then moves around the room?
music / pauline oliveros Back to Michael: we were talking about interactivity and how we were both tired of that word because it doesn’t mean what we’re talking about. So we finally agreed upon interdependent interactivity, where the system is dependent upon input from the player and the player is dependent on the feedback from the system. Each informs the other, and that’s what I mean by “expanded,” because you begin to expand your capabilities.
and video files, so you can do what you can’t quite do on ordinary Internet because there’s not enough bandwidth. In 1990, I started using video telephone technology to make musical connections with long-distance partners. I proceeded with PictureTel, using DSL lines, then the Internet, and finally Internet2. Multi-site performances, collaborative performances . . . there’s a whole history of that now. There are now some repertoires growing, so Deep Listening Institute commissioned several composers to do pieces for the telematic medium using the Internet for co-located performances. I made a connection with Chris Chafe at Stanford University. Chris has designed JackTrip, which is low-latency software with CD-quality audio that can be transmitted in eight channels.
CA: Did you just come up with the term interdependent interactivity yesterday?
PO: Yeah, I think it’s a real key idea that has come out of a wonderful collaboration with Michael. Yesterday he played me a piece that Guy Klucevsek, the virtuoso accordionist in Staten Island, has written. It’s a tango, actually, for two instruments. He had the accompaniment, or the second part, programmed on the Disklavier.
PO: Well, it’s crazy and it’s wonderful and it sounds really fantastic.
A: Oh, that’s cool. So he’s playing the accordion C with a robot piano.
PO: Right, like Data, it does what it is programmed to do. But it was so funny because the Disklavier had about a 25 cent difference in tuning than the accordion. It was just hilarious; it was wonderful.
CA: Really? Isn’t that crazy?
A: Wow, eight channels of CD quality. I can’t even C believe they can do that now.
PO: It’s happened and it’s happening, and our group with Chris and RPI is kind of pushing the field. We’ve presented a lot of concerts, we’ve done papers at the Acoustical Society of America, the International Society for Improvised Music, and the International Computer Music Conference. So we’re creating a field that has to do with telepresence and telematic music. The ideal is that you lose the boundary between what’s being televised and what’s real. (Pauline’s phone rings.)
A: You know the band Van Halen? There was a C concert video of theirs that got very popular online recently. There’s a keyboard part in the song that was apparently on a playback, and I think what happened is that it played back at 48 kilohertz and the actual recording was 41 kilohertz. They’re in a hockey rink and the concert starts and then the keyboard starts a whole tone-and-a-half above where it should be. And the band goes, Wrrrnnn. You can see them realizing and trying to adjust to being pitched oneand-a-half semitones off. But they’re on stringed, fretted instruments, so there’s nothing to do about it, know what I mean? It’s this amazing video of a totally off-tune, half-atonal performance. The guitar player bends up every note and the singer goes up, but the bass player has no idea what to do. It was fantastic. All my training in all that stuff came back to me and I was like, This is actually quite modern!
CA: Speaking of telepresence!
PO: That was just a reminder that I had to meet you. Where was I?
PO: This reminds me to tell you that I’m also teaching a seminar at RPI called Experimental Telepresence.
PO: I’ll tell you a few things that happened. My nonprofit, Deep Listening Institute, recently did a project called the Deep Listening Convergence. We had 45 musicians in a virtual residency using Skype. The project was to have new ensembles form and rehearse online for five months. Then we brought them all together upstate at the Lifebridge Sanctuary, which is a really beautiful place, and we did three real concerts of only material that had been developed online.
CA: Oh, boy!
PO: Since 2001, when I arrived at RPI, I’ve been working on Internet2, which is a more or less private Internet developed by DARPA, a US government-operated research unit that conceptualizes and creates military technology. It’s designed for transmission of large audio
A: What keeps pushing you to drive in these C directions which haven’t been driven in before? To take what you just said as an example, video telephones certainly were not designed for small musical ensembles, but you decided to push the technology in that way. And now you’re working with DARPA technology to organize multi-site
Pauline Oliveros March 5, 1998
Processing performers selectively with effects of choice.
performances. These technologies were not designed for these uses, and yet you have continually bent them to your vision.
CA: Is that an iPhone? You have an iPhone! You’re ahead of me. PO: Yeah, I used the iPhone four-track recorder today for the first time. CA: I can’t believe there’s a four-track recorder on the iPhone. You started recording onto tin wire. What is it like for you to now have something like this? In the ’60s the top technology cost a badrillion dollars. Only the Beatles had a four-track, you know?
CA: Do you ever think about how all the things you have been working in for so long are now the direction that everything has taken? Like the online collaborations—look at the online networking sites. It’s amazing to look at all the things you’ve been hammering away at for years and now see what has happened in culture. The average funny Internet video or audio clip that gets passed around more often than not is the result of a multi-site collaboration. Most media today is participatory in this way. There might be rock bands in the future that will get together in the same way as the ensembles you brought together did.
PO: (laughter) I’m going to work on using it. I’m going to record little things wherever I am and start to do some pieces with the sound bytes. CA: I remember when the Deep Listening Band played at Oberlin College. You had to take over the concert venue for like a week just to set up the for the show. The setup was so intense; there was a big audio rig and wires and mics everywhere. I bet now it would all fit in a tiny suitcase. What’s the latest with the Deep Listening Band?
PO: Alex Carôt in Germany made a software called Soundjack to rehearse his rock band.
PO: The Deep Listening Band is celebrating our 20th year with a new recording—we’re going back to the cistern to record it. The cistern was formerly used to hold the
CA: There you go.
Detail of a score for Primordial/ Lift, 1998. Copyright Deep Listening Publications.
Using gradual cross-fades to solo instruments.
Copyright 1998 Deep Listening Publications – ASCAP PO: Yeah, there it©is. It’s very high quality and low latency; I’ve worked with it. You can download it at Virtualsoundexchange.net, which is a website where you can get all kinds of expert advice on using different technologies. That’s the net: you can start collaborations with people anywhere in the world—except for the places that don’t have the Internet.
PO: I could fall off the cliff. What keeps me going is the interest and excitement. It’s very amazing to work with people in that way, and it’s also very difficult. I do believe that relationships are the Wild West, and that working physically and virtually is part of developing a more peaceful world. This has to be learned through listening and negotiating. Improvised music is a great model for community building and reconciling differences. My work with Deep Listening supports this idea. A community of Deep Listeners has grown out of the summer retreats and workshops are given in many places in the world. People who listen together grow and expand together.
music / pauline oliveros water supply for the army stationed at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, a small town in Washington State. It held two million gallons of water, is made of reinforced concrete, has a diameter of nearly 200 feet, is 14 feet deep, and has a high-quality reverberation time of 45 seconds.
up the telephone and you’ll see everyone you’ve ever talked to, and you’ll have advertisements targeting you based on what you said. That’s how all the money will be made in the future: ad-based data mining.
CA: Is that where you recorded the first Deep Listening Band record?
PO: I’ve been surfing technology for 50 years; more than that, probably. But I’m not a technologist, I never pretended to be one, but I’m using it, and that’s different from somebody who’s hacking it. I hack it conceptually. I think about what hardware and software can do, then try to push it beyond what it is supposed to do.
PO: That’s right, Deep Listening was recorded in 1988 and released by New Albion in 1989. That’s what made the Deep Listening Band happen. After experiencing a 45-second reverberation time we tried to reproduce it electronically. We have never succeeded in doing that, but the cistern is our benchmark space. The reverberation there is unbelievably clear. The direct sound and reflected sound are almost indistinguishable.
CA: Also, hacking takes so much time. Once you figure something out, the next thing is already here. You really have to invest. Hacking is like learning an instrument. As the years wear on, I have more and more difficulty keeping up. I found a solution though: I just started to make work about that difficulty! These instruments are always disappearing and new ones are coming, so in a way it’s better just to surf because you’re able to roll with the punches. In the last couple years, there’s been a shift. I think a lot of the innovation and technology has been towards selfpublishing. How do you think that affects the next generation of composers? Now they have immediate access to a global audience, and that’s fairly new.
CA: Most people probably think it’s digital reverb, right? PO: But it’s not; it’s simply acoustic, and the sound is picked up by microphones. We’re going to go back to the cistern and this time we’re going to take an ambisonic microphone.
CA: What’s that?
PO: It’s a microphone array—about eight microphones—so we can really record the surround sound.
PO: As a matter of fact, I was talking about this with my seminar this semester. I have got people lined up in different parts of the world to collaborate with my students, and I’m going to have them choose who they want to collaborate with. They can choose anybody as long as it’s some distance away. But I’m going to propose that they come up with a concert in April, a borderless concert.
CA: Is the cistern just for you alone?
PO: Well, we can’t have anyone in the cistern while we record because as soon as anybody sneezes it’s going to reverberate for 45 seconds. (laughter) There’s only one entrance and you have to go 14 feet down a ladder; it’s really not for an audience.
CA: I have to come visit one of these days.
CA: Will it be in one space?
PO: Yeah, it’ll be at EMPAC on April 30. But it could be that a piece would take place in Second Life. I’ve been working a lot there, performing with the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse. I also made a piece for the group.
PO: Well, certainly. I want to come to your house, too. CA: Oh, yeah, just call me up. I’m just sitting at home working on my website or doing whatever I do normally. I did a performance at Sundance in 2007 where I sat in my bed and I iChatted it over video.
CA: So do you have an avatar?
PO: Yes, Free Noyes. (laughter) N-O-Y-E-S.
PO: Good, so you’re into telematics as well.
CA: I’m Brad Pippin. It’s as close to Brad Pitt as I could get.
CA: I have not stopped being into telematics since your class. PO: Well, I might stick somebody on you from my seminar to do a little project, just a connectivity thing. CA: Totally, soon the Internet will be just like picking
matthew Buckingham 90
FILM / matthew buckingham BY Josiah McELHENY
describes the history of the Hudson—most significantly, what happened on its shores at the beginning of European domination. Images of the Hudson taken from helicopter are washed out, magenta-tinged, as if this was faded stock footage from the ’70s. A voiceover describes a horrible history of violence and economic injustice with measured language and tone. Here we are on that very same spot in which it took place, desperately trying to imagine or connect this landscape of skyscrapers to its much longer history. Buckingham’s restagings can only unfold over time—by willful reassembly in the viewer’s thought and memory. He employs various strategies: multiple screens, split image and text, screens interrupting and reflecting the projection, projection rooms echoing the rooms depicted in the film, and so on. Taking history and memory and projecting them through a prism, Buckingham creates a spectrum of ideas that can only theoretically coalesce into a whole. —Josiah McElheny
To briefly describe Matthew Buckhingham’s work, one could suggest it’s a cross between the films and exhibition design of Charles and Ray Eames and Bruce Nauman's sculptural video and performance works. Like Buckingham, the Eameses were obsessed with creating new ways of communicating information. For films like Glimpses of the USA (shown on seven screens for the American exhibition in Moscow in 1959) they carefully constructed systems of presentation in which the viewer’s participation was primary. Many of Nauman’s video pieces— from Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967– 68), to Good Boy Bad Boy (1985), and Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001)—explore how understanding might be both supported and undermined through extended viewing of a situation set up by the artist. The aftereffects of watching them are similar to experiencing Buckingham's work. One could also invoke other examples—the cinematic works of Fernand Leger, Dan Graham’s instructionbased works, Walid Raad’s fictionalized archives, and Deimantas Narkevicius’s history projects. Despite often having history, fiction, or narrative as their subject, each one of Buckingham's projects reframes the question of experience itself, in Walter Benjamin’s sense: experience as the result and totality of a person’s perception, interpretation, and memory. The setting in which Buckingham installed Muhheakantuck–Everything has a Name last year is useful in understanding how his work encompasses the contradictions of knowledge and experience. Imagine standing in line on the most inelegant of piers, then boarding a boat made for very short commuting rides. Soon after the boat begins its trip on the Hudson River, the sun begins to set and a film starts. It Still from A Man of the Crowd, 2003, continuous black and white 16mm film projection with sound, semi-reflective glass. Total running time: 24
minutes. All images courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy Gallery, New York.
J osiah McElheny: We were just were talking about the difference between the ideologies of a historian and of an artist; what interests you is that what you can’t do with history as a historian, you might be able to do as an artist.
Matthew Buckingham: Yes, because of the limits that one agrees to. In a sense historians negotiate their own relationship to the limits of their discipline, and probably formulates this mixture of literature and science that history is differently. I can be unfaithful to a particular formulation of history, almost perverting it, in a way, by bringing it into the art context. By seeing what else is there, I can thereby bring it back into an indeterminate field, into the everyday, or into my own or the viewer’s experience, so that those limits must be renegotiated again and again.
JM: You just referred to perversion—I think I understand what you mean. You are perverting, in some sense, the ideology or the methodology of history; but, on one level, history is perversion in and of itself. Historians begin by deciding—before we can decide—what should be forgotten and what should be remembered.
BOMB MB: Yes, this is foundational to even the idea of the category of history. I want to somehow place the spectator in a position where they are aware of their own selection process as they are engaging with my work—or anybody’s work, really. That’s exciting because it puts that thinking process into real time.
pursue a particular subject, for lack of a better word? MB: Yes, definitely. What you’re pointing to goes back to the question of selection in constructing history, to the elimination of contingency or of the quotidian. Excluded documents can reveal as much, and sometimes more, about a subject than privileged documents. Through the “castoffs” we get a glimpse of past moments before they were resolved, possibly reimagining them in their present tense, or even comparing or contrasting them with our own everyday knowledge. The project I did some years ago on the subject of physiognomy was based on this type of investigation, looking at how the idea of reading character through the body, and especially the facial features of a person, entered the popular culture, saturated it, and then was discredited and discarded. Rather than begin by looking at physiognomy as a pseudoscience, I looked at it as something that was taken for granted for a period of time, asking what its repressed legacy might be today.
JM: The subjects that you end up being attracted to—would you say that you choose the subjects, or that the subjects choose you? Do you think that perversion is inherent in them? MB: There are two tracks in the work I’ve been doing, maybe even two broader subjects. One would be the general question of historiography. How do we make these constructions, or how is history used representationally, rhetorically, or politically? The other subject is the particular material within a given project—there’s definitely a connection between all the subjects that I have chosen, or, as you say, have chosen me. Speaking about the past we always face the problem of objective and subjective knowledge. Some practitioners assert that historical investigations should be objective or neutral. But how can we completely divorce our work from our interests and contexts? If scientists are ready to acknowledge the role of the observer in scientific method, then perhaps it’s more productive to look at history as always unfinished—as a field where we can make claims and debate the adequacy of different narratives by looking at their real effects without allowing the discourse to dissolve into relativism. As for my projects, I’ve tried to think of narratives or stories in terms of what they reveal about our desire to connect the present and past, or, in other cases, to deny a connection. Stories use memory to give form to the relationship we all have with the everyday. We could each see our process of waking up and recalling what we are supposed to do in the morning as a kind of personal, “domestic archaeology.” Our identity, our being “timely” or “untimely,” all hinge on the way we relate to others through our processes of memory. So I look at that more metaphorically in my work and try to understand bigger structures of so-called history and ideology, in connection with this.
JM: Do you think that as artists we might be able to, through example, grant people a sense of permission to look at things in a curious and open-ended manner? Hopefully with as few preconceptions as possible? Is the idea of giving the viewer a sense of permission an important aspect of your work? MB: Absolutely, and hopefully a permission that entails responsibility. The art context can be a chance for us to see our own responsibility or possibility for agency in a different way because it’s nearly always metaphoric, on some level. It interests me to see how or on what level an artist can turn their work over to the spectator, so that the viewer also becomes aware of their own process of interpretation. Choosing to work on a particular project is often based on what problems I need to confront myself, which I will, in turn, hand over to someone else. I hope this highlights the process of memory in relation to decision making, both personally and collectively, where we can question our value system.
JM: When I’m choosing subject matter, it’s often the subject matter that finds me. It’s an instinctual process—not random, but still a chance-based occurrence. I often turn to footnotes or rare texts or historical objects, things that are considered distinctly unimportant or just not central to major historical narratives. The reason I do that—I think—is that these things seem more available to me; they seem more accessible to new thinking and new interpretations. They don’t have such a strong set of constituent interests and arguments—or at least those that they have aren’t so fixed that one can’t create new connections. Does this relate to how you decide to
JM: The value system in terms of what?
MB: How things get argued out and how we value or devalue social conditions or events from the past. JM: For myself, I often find that the idea of a small or forgotten aspect of history inevitably speaks to larger issues anyway. And I’m always looking for how to find a connection—is there some specific material aspect, or some particular narrative that’s associated with these backwaters of knowledge, that speaks to contemporary issues? MB: Right.
FILM / matthew buckingham
MB: I don’t want to speak for Jimmie Durham, but in this statement I hear the desire, on the one hand, to not be overly burdened by one’s past and, on the other, to acknowledge injustice and see its connection with the present. “History is what hurts,” Fredric Jameson says. It can determine us and always challenges us. I connect this with the Frankfurt School and Max Horkheimer’s notion of history as the preservation of the memory of suffering coupled with the demand for change. The events we decide to record are often the negative ones, the ones we’ve really struggled with. This can also lead to the flipside of historical memory, which is also motivated by “wishing that we didn’t have a past”—the flipside is forgetting, or repressing, our experience. With the Muhheakantuck project I wanted to look at the present moment. The film has been shown in different contexts over the past few years, so in a sense, that present moment has been elongated. The project began in 2001– 02 out of a desire to rethink the questions of sovereignty, identity, and territory that became so urgent after the fall of the World Trade Center towers. I wanted to try to see the city on a longer time line, in relation to a longer history and the role that violence has played in defining New York, and even the Hudson River Valley, as a place. If we make that impossible leap of language, thinking of a 315-mile-long river and a city of nine million people as a “place,” I believe we’re immediately confronted with the questions of: Who has lived here? Whose place is this? In what sense are the geography and the land identified with people? In the bigger picture, for 15,000 years or more the answer to that question has been the indigenous people of what are now New York and New Jersey.
J M: You suggested in an email that we talk about what happens if objects and strategies from the discipline of history are brought into the art context. Along those lines, I was thinking about the overlaps of sympathies in our respective work. There are a number of subjects there: questions about truth, accuracy, interpretation, narrative, pedagogy, memory, context, display methodologies, etcetera. You’ve touched on some of that, but when you speak about agency and responsibility it brings up what has lately seemed, to me, to be most central: questions about politics. I think that it is of utmost importance, in terms of art, to overturn the stereotypes about the relationship between art and politics. To tie this to a specific project, I was thinking about my experience seeing Muhheakantuck– Everything Has a Name last year. Seeing that film on the boat at sunset last year, as we were traveling on the Hudson, while listening to you narrate the history of the clash of Europeans and the indigenous people who were already here in the New York City area was an amazing experience. Watching what appears to be aged, faded film of the Hudson shot from a helicopter, and at the same time looking out on the water, traversing the same landscape, but from a very different vantage point . . . For me it created a number of different levels of narrative, memory, and experience, and set out multiple viewpoints on history. Would talk about the film in terms of politics, agency, and responsibility. Also what would you say is your attitude towards memory in that piece?
MB: We often partition time in these categories of past, present, and future, but it’s worth considering the possibility of the past not being over for many people. I once heard Jimmie Durham define the past as “What you wish you didn’t have.” Still from Muhheakantuck– Everything Has a Name, 2003, continuous color 16mm film projection with sound, projection screen, seats.
Total running time: 40 minutes.
J M: Let’s talk a little about methodology. In a number of your projects there’s an effort to clarify the difference between what place is and what it’s remembered as. For instance, in your One Side of Broadway project you document every building on one side of the avenue between Bowling Green and Columbus Circle, incompletely reconstructing the images from an eponymous 1910 book that included every building on both sides of Broadway. To me, what’s unique about your work is that while it functions in part to retell or focus on important historical and contemporary subjects, its central point is about a physical and psychic experience of knowledge. You often explore ways to present us with a disjunction between what we know and what we experience; you both separate and connect those things. I thought, for instance, that in your relatively recent piece Everything I Need that element was strongly felt. In Everything I Need the text is on the righthand screen and what appears, at first, to be unrelated footage of a ’70s airplane interior is on
the left. The narrative is intense—in part it’s about the love life of a lesbian woman in Nazi Germany of the ’30s—but the film footage is very simple, colorful, and slow. Eventually one understands the connection between the airplane and the story of the narrator’s return to Berlin in 1978. The story is rich and evocative, so the relatively mundane nature of the film footage—mostly of the orange-colored fabric on the seats of this airplane—constantly grounds you and creates a sense of your own disconnection to the situation and era of the story. Was the disjunction between knowledge and the physical an intentional effect?
to their viewers. This is how I look at someone like Walid Raad’s work. I feel myself becoming part of the subject of his work as I make an effort to understand what I’m looking at. He often presents catastrophic events at the level of the everyday, but the events never become ordinary. I catch myself evaluating the difference, wondering how do I know what I think I know? JM: You describe a strategy for creating a temporary situation where the viewer has to mentally put disjunctive images and ideas together, but it seems that you’re not content to repeat any one strategy. Each of your pieces has a different way of approaching this problem. Your approach is very different from that of a documentary filmmaker because you are often questioning how the viewer is physically apprehending the image. You are not simply satisfied with trying to convince people of the facts, as a documentary filmmaker might. In one place you might use the strategy of projecting through a double mirror, as in A Man of the Crowd or, in the case of Everything I Need, a split screen that creates a disjuncture between what might be called subtitles and the imagery. Do you find the source material first and then develop a strategy for the structure, a situation in which to present your exposition? Or does this happen in the reverse: you have a notion or idea of how images and language can be perceived in space, and then you find a set of ideas that fits that particular system of display?
MB: That’s something I do think a lot about. With Everything I Need I looked at the life of Charlotte Wolff and thought it’d be interesting to try to position the spectator at the exact juncture that you’re talking about: between the everyday or the environmental experience and the very complex process of constructing knowledge out of memory. In Wolff’s case, I wanted specifically to look at her reflections in relation to the decisions she was forced to make. An ongoing strategy for me has been to juxtapose aspects of a problem so that they are left unsynthesized until the spectator agrees to engage them: in the case of Everything I Need, picture and language are physically separated on two projection screens. One displays a sequence of titles projected without spoken language, and the other, a series of images that have sound. The process of making a conventional film ends with the final edit, where the filmmakers have synthesized the material in a way they feel will convey the meaning of the film most effectively. I, on the other hand, try to leave things somewhat in the condition I find them, and prefer the experience to “end” in each viewer’s mind as they actively synthesize the material for themselves. I’m interested in the different ways in which many artists work with problems by partly turning them over Installation shot of One Side of Broadway, 2005, continuous black and white 35mm slide projection with sound, projection screen.
Total running time: 16 minutes.
MB: It’s a combination—like what we were saying about selecting material to work with, sometimes it selects you. Working with an idea will often suggest a form, or the reverse. The projects are very much based on an idea of an "investigator." Enormous problems arrive with this model. Who is investigating? Who speaks and who doesn’t? I’ve consciously tried to get as close as I can to my imaginary viewer—physically and mentally—thinking
Installation shot from Everything I Need, 2007, continuous color double video projection installation with sound, projection screens.
Total running time: 25 minutes.
FILM / matthew buckingham about what happens to a moving image or an object when we encounter it in a real place. JM: I wouldn’t want to suggest that the main thrust of your work is in any sense structural or formal. But at the same time the history of art is a history of forms. When I think about your work's effect on me, I remember the information and the narrative. But, even more, the particular space in which I experienced it and how the linguistic information was passed on. Each piece is a history told through language, but each time with new methods. One could draw some parallel to the kind of structures that Bruce Nauman has set up in many of his works—they also create very specific effects. I’m thinking for instance, of Good Boy Bad Boy; after watching it all the way through, it ends up changing how one experiences language—language appears to dissolve.
reflected the film image onto the back wall of the booth. Two moving images were created from one. The Poe story, with its symmetry of one man secretly following another, reminded me of this experience.
MB: What’s interesting about terms like the particular and the general, form and content, theory and practice, and so on, is their inseparability, and how they actually describe a relationship rather than a binary pair or polarity. These pairs can never collapse into each other nor can they exist alone. In a sense they are subsets of each other perhaps, or different dimensions of the same thing. With A Man of the Crowd for instance, I remember coming across the story by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Man of the Crowd.” On first reading it, quite a long time before I was able to do the project, I recognized a lot of interesting conscious and unconscious things. Particularly, I saw it as an open-ended parable—a story from which we can make multiple readings, since it’s very ambiguous. What resonated so strongly was that it told the story of a person becoming fascinated by a stranger about whom he wants to know something, yet he wants to find this out in secret. This immediately reminded me of a model of nonfiction filmmaking—the idea that if we were able to totally conceal our means of observation, we would get at some kind of truth. In looking at the history of the story itself, I found that through Baudelaire’s translating it into French, it became a model of the flâneur for him, which in turn influenced Walter Benjamin, and so on. Suddenly I saw the story as an intersection of a number of concerns. This raised the question of what happens to a preexisting text when it’s adapted. Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” was actually adapted by German and Austrian television at one point. In my case, I brought it into real, physical space. The story sent me back to a moment that I had experienced when I was in school working informally as a projectionist. Most cinema projection booths are constructed so that the small opening through which the image is projected is closed by a piece of glass positioned at an angle. The glass is there to keep noise from the booth out of the auditorium and it’s angled to prevent the projector light from similarly bouncing around. But at one school I attended, the glass
JM: I had the intuition that some of the strategies that you use to structure your works came from highly specific personal observations. I can see how A Man of the Crowd comes from seeing these doubled images inside the projection booth. Often at the beginning of your films there’s a clue about the overall construction—at the beginning of the loop in A Man of the Crowd, the camera depicts a Jacques Tati, Playtime-type moment, where we glimpse the man the main character will follow in a doubled image of mirror and window. The shot creates a mysterious image that echoes how the film is experienced; the viewer sees the film both on the wall and in a reflection due to the glass plane that hangs in the middle of the space interrupting the projection. I was also thinking about the beginning of Sandra of the Tuliphouse—when she arrives at this little isolated house—when one is watching the film under a sound-isolation bubble. Sitting on the floor below one bubble you’re at the same time aware of the four other screens nearby, each with their own sound bubble. Each screen is showing the same footage, though at different points in the loop, but the clue is the overlapping isolation. You’re in this community in the gallery as the characters in the film are in a community—this ideal utopia in Denmark— and yet, in both cases, everybody is separated in their little bubble. And then I think about your recent piece about the invention of cinema . . . MB: Oh, yes, False Future . . . JM: Walking in, seeing the film—which is about the very first moving image—projected on a piece
Still from Situation Leading to a Story, 1999, continuous black and white 16mm film projection with sound. Total running time: 21 minutes.
BOMB of cloth suspended in the middle of the room, it’s immediately clear that it's referring to another recorded image—Veronica’s cloth in the Bible. Again, this setup appears to be key. The structure and its relationship to the story create a palpable sense of the physicality of making an image, recording a moment in history.
there’s often a discussion of what’s fiction and what’s historical. That question has been asked— reasonably—about my own projects as well. But the question doesn’t always make sense to me, because I can’t find the actual point at which the separation between historicity and fiction lies. I do not have a coherent intellectual argument for why that is so. Maybe the sense of fluidity of fact and history began for me when I read Jorge Luis Borges as a child. One intuitively knows that there is always doubt about the location of the border between fiction and history. Maybe doubt is a state of being. I was wondering if you could talk a little about your feeling about fiction versus history. Of course, in some pieces you’ve actually begun with a piece of fiction, but perhaps my question is most pertinent in those pieces that purport to be a kind of history.
MB: Those are registers of meaning that spectators must navigate as they try to work out what they’re seeing. I like the way David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson approach film studies by holistically asking: What am I looking at? Who made this? How was it made? It’s a kind of materialist approach that tries to take into account as many elements of the film-viewing experience as possible. I apply this to viewing and making visual art. In False Future, spectators discover they are physically in the space that is described in the work’s narrative, which turns out to be a sort of “primal scene” of cinema. That’s what interests me about installation art, you know, thinking about the bigger field of experience that’s available to us as artists, not as a way of expanding our control, but maybe the opposite: to see art shade off into life. I believe the most interesting examples of installation work ask the viewer to negotiate this border as part of the meaning of the piece. And there is no shortage of ways to do this, from a single short length of string, in Fred Sandback’s case, to Faith Wilding’s miles of string.
MB: History tries, in a sense, to get us to imagine something that no longer exists, but that once did. This is how historical narration relates to fiction, I think. In other words, to imagine the past we use the same mental space that we use for imagining things that never existed. Furthermore, what’s confusing, in an exciting way, is that both fiction and history writing make truth claims similarly. They argue their case, and we must evaluate, criticize, and react. Which stories are more adequate and why? If we’re only interested in whether something happened or didn’t happen, without wondering why or why we should even I care, then simple yes and no answers will feel satisfying and seem definitive. A lot can be repressed when we stop at that level. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the popular notion of ghosts; of haunting, in a broad sense. What makes up the formulation of a ghost? For me, it’s the idea of unresolved questions—Salman Rushdie’s “unfinished business”—condensing in the form of a person. Ghosts aren’t satisfied with simple yes or no answers. That nagging feeling that comes from unaddressed things is what motivates me to do new projects and to look at other people’s work.
JM: As we were talking, I realized that I had never thought about you being the cinematographer; you being the body behind the moving camera. You also mentioned earlier that you’re fascinated by the meaning and history of the portable film camera. The piece about the found box of film, Situation Leading to a Story, is obviously speaking about the importance of the invention of the portable camera and the original development of home movies. In terms of your art, what are your thoughts on your being depicted visually or with your voice in some of your films as you, Matthew Buckingham the artist? MB: Those questions are there in everyone’s work, to a degree. The more one denies that, the more palpable that is. Situation Leading to a Story was one project where I deliberately tried to play quite a bit with the viewers’ relationship to my experience and theirs, both watching the film and in the installation itself. The voiceover is presented in such a way that spectators have to use their own memory very self-consciously. There’s almost no synchronization between what’s heard and seen at a given moment. The viewer has to “rewind” and compare what they hear and see at different times in order to evaluate the story they’re being told—perhaps even at a very basic level of what might be “true.”
JM: It’s as if it’s not the question of history haunting us, but us haunting history. MB: Exactly. In some of Henry James’ stories, like "The Turn of the Screw," "The Jolly Corner," or "The Sense of the Past," that is literally what happens. The main characters, displaced in time or space, worry that they have become ghosts haunting someone else.
JM: In things that have been written about you,
The MIT Press OUT OF NOW The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh Adrian Heathfield and Tehching Hsieh A visually stunning documentary record and critical account of Tehching Hsieh’s epic performance works. Published by the Live Art Development Agency and the MIT Press 384 pp., 173 color illus., 140 b&w illus., $49.95 cloth
ON THE CAMERA ARTS AND CONSECUTIVE MATTERS The Writings of Hollis Frampton Hollis Frampton edited with an introduction by Bruce Jenkins “At long last, a near complete collection of Hollis Frampton’s idiosyncratic, scholarly, recondite, funny writings, which might justly be called ‘Offbeat Ways to Think About Everything.’ This book is an invaluable resource for artists, pedagogues, autodidacts, and anyone who enjoys being intellectually provoked.” — Yvonne Rainer, author of Feelings are Facts Writing Art series • 360 pp., 34 illus., $39.95 cloth
DAN GRAHAM Beyond edited by Bennett Simpson and Chrissie Iles foreword by Jeremy Strick The first comprehensive survey of a pioneering artist, encompassing photographs, film and video, architectural models, pavilion installations, conceptual projects for magazine pages, drawings and prints, and writings. Distributed for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 384 pp., 150 color illus., 100 b&w illus., $44.95 paper
SYNTHETIC TIMES Media Art China edited by Fan Di’an and Zhang Ga Innovative and groundbreaking works by new media artists from nearly thirty countries reflect what it means to be human on the threshold of human-machine symbiosis. Copublished with the National Art Museum of China 358 pp., 200 color illus., $44.95 paper
edited by David Evans “The great strength of this landmark anthology is its inclusive strategy… From Malek Alloula to Gil J. Wolman, the voices sampled here introduce the reader to artistic practices and theoretical concepts that anyone interested in appropriation ought to know.” — Anne M. Wagner, University of California, Berkeley Documents of Contemporary Art series • Copublished with Whitechapel Gallery, London • 240 pp., $24.95 paper
Documents of Contemporary Art series • Copublished with Whitechapel Art Gallery, London • 240 pp., $24.95 paper
Used Paint Suzanne P. Hudson “This is an indispensable study of Ryman’s painting, distinguished by its brilliant and original analysis of Ryman’s pragmatism. Hudson pries Ryman’s work from the silent critical interstices to which it has too often been relegated… [and] reveals the noninterchangeable specificity of each and every Ryman painting, showing how each emerges from its own procedural and material moment.” — Jennifer L. Roberts, Harvard University
edited by Dave Beech “Dave Beech tackles the politics of beauty, arguing with characteristic clarity that beauty is neither purely individual and subjective, nor is it entirely socially inscribed; rather it exists at the point of tension between the individual and society… Beech has not only revivified the debate about the politics of beauty but he has brought it up to date.” — Patricia Bickers, Editor, Art Monthly, and University of Westminster, London
CHRIS MARKER La Jetée Janet Harbord A reconsideration of Chris Marker’s famous film, examining its treatment of time, its use of sound, the influence of the comic book form, and other topics. One Work series • Distributed for Afterall Books 112 pp., 32 illus., $16 paper
HANNE DARBOVEN Cultural History 1880-1983 Dan Adler An illustrated study of Hanne Darboven’s masterwork, the massive Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Cultural History 1880-1983). One Work series • Distributed for Afterall Books 112 pp., 32 color illus., $16 paper
THE MUSEOLOGICAL UNCONSCIOUS Communal (Post)Modernism in Russia Victor Tupitsyn introduction by Susan Buck-Morss and Victor Tupitsyn “A compelling and challenging analysis of the dynamics between Russian art practices and East-West sociocultural politics of the past sixty years by one of contemporary art’s most provocative commentators. Imbued with a rare wit and humor, Tupitsyn’s agile intellect navigates us through the treacherous waters of cultural translation and aesthetic theory…” — Jean Fisher, Middlesex University 344 pp., 90 illus., $34.95 cloth
INVENTING MARCEL DUCHAMP The Dynamics of Portraiture edited by Anne Collins Goodyear and James W. McManus foreword by Martin E. Sullivan An old genre is given a new look, as portraits and self-portraits of Marcel Duchamp invent and cover up as much as they reveal and portray. Distributed for the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution 320 pp., 120 color illus., 42 b&w illus., $49.95 cloth
The MIT Press
To order call 800-405-1619 • http://mitpress.mit.edu
An October Book • 328 pp., 112 illus., color throughout, $39.95 cloth
edited by Graham Bader The most comprehensive collection on Lichtenstein, from the earliest reviews to recent reassessments, including several hard-to-find and previously unpublished pieces. October Files series • 192 pp., 43 illus., $17.95 paper
WHITE HEAT COLD LOGIC British Computer Art 1960–1980 edited by Paul Brown, Charlie Gere, Nicholas Lambert, and Catherine Mason “Here is a fascinating crash course in the early history of computer art seen through the eyes of its pioneers and heirs. The focus on Britain provides a vital corrective to those who think it all begins in Silicon Valley and MIT.” — Richard Coyne, University of Edinburgh, and author of Cornucopia Limited A Leonardo Book • 568 pp., 63 illus., $34.95 cloth
Adrian Parr “None of us can afford to ignore sustainability today since the very life of the planet is at stake. And yet it is easy to forget that sustainability is a political problem and a cultural problem too. Hijacking Sustainability is a timely reminder that sustainability is not something we should leave to the market to sort out. Parr makes clear that sustainability is a matter for which we all have to take responsibility and that to do that we have to wake up to what’s really going on. Critical theory can scarcely have hoped for a more important book.” — Ian Buchanan, Professor of Critical and Cultural Theory, Cardiff University 224 pp., 2 illus., $24.95 cloth
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BOMB Issue 107, Spring 2009: Jacqueline Humphries by Cecily Brown, Eric Kraft by Andrei Codrescu, Roxy Paine by Tod Willians and Billie Tsie...