INTERVIEW: Rainer Ganahl

 

Rainer Ganahl’s Language of Emigration & Pictures of Emigration is now on view at Alex Zachary Gallery. The show consists of video interviews with German-speaking migrants who came to New York to escape Nazi persecution. The videos are accompanied by photos of the interiors of their New York apartments.  Part of Ganahl’s art practice focuses on the study of foreign language. These migrants are all German-speaking, as the Austrian-born Ganahl is himself. However, Ganahl’s interview partners “carry with them a language that has vanished” – preserving the German idioms and accents once used in 20th-century Europe that are now out of use. Ganahl explores how language “works in the mind of the speakers and messes with memory, grammar, syntax, and personal lexica…The relationship between language, trauma, and loss became audible.”

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

ZING: How did you find the German emigrants / New York residents you interviewed? Are these your neighbors?  Where do they live in New York?

Rainer Ganahl: I found most of these interviewees with the help of other people I had previously interviewed. This project, which I started at the end of the 1990s with the title: “Language of Emigration,” consists of interviews and photographs of former Nazi victims and Holocaust survivors. I’m interested in how trauma, forced emigration, distance, and loss has influenced the mother tongues of these mostly German speaking people who have been living in New York for many decades. Each work combines a lengthy unedited video interview with photographs taken of the people and their homes.

Several years ago I was seated in an airplane next to a lady with such a fate and became very curious and perplexed. I was very surprised and realized that many people of that horrific period of European history are still living among us with quite a few in New York, which is also my home town of choice for the last 20 years. As an Austrian born after WWII, I simply and naively couldn’t imagine the proximity and continuation of such a brutal time.

 

ZING: Mary Silverman’s interview was recorded in her apartment, but she did not physically appear in her video, unlike the other interviewees.  Why was this?

RG: She decided not to be in seen on camera, hence the camera pointed to one “of her China sets which she was able to recuperate from Austria.” Her interview is called “Pictures of Emigration” since the subject of her story is not only about how they saved their own lives through a lucky escape from Nazism, but also the near complete restitution of her father’s incredible art collection relatively soon after the war. This collection, consisting of several Rubens, a painting by Lukas Cranach, and a work by Botticelli, is now still hanging in a private apartment on the upper West side, with flowers touching the canvases and barely any climate control. In front of a Rubens, there is a flat TV screen and other contemporary objects that seem uncompetitive with the history of these fine and valuable paintings, creating quite a funny impression.

 

ZING: You mention that this particular group of people are “in possession of a language that has vanished” and that one of your interviewees used “theater-ready” German, a dialect no longer in common use.  You say “Emigration[…]preserved idioms and accents[…]that have vanished back on the continent.”  What happened to these dialects, idioms and accents?

RG: Well, most of my interview partners left Europe in the 1930s and don’t speak German on a regular basis – hence they are speaking and preserving a language more or less as spoken at the time of their departure. Needless to say, every language mutates and so did German as well as any other language. You can see this in recordings of people in the 1930 and 1940s. Usually, people adapt in a linguistic context and change with the times. Not so with people who live outside their original linguistic environment.

For example, Prague was part of the Austrian-Habsburg Empire until 1918 and had a large German speaking, partly Jewish population. Kafka was the most famous member of it. That group lived there until Hitler’s politics made it impossible for them. With the final eviction of all remaining German-speaking people from Prague in the 1940s – after the war – no German/Austrians lived there any longer. Nobody there could give us an idea of Kafka’s linguistic surrounding. I was therefore very surprised to hear an emigrant woman here in NYC who grew up in Prague in a fancy building that now houses the US embassy. As if to make it more “Kafkaesque” a letter by a Mrs. Kafka was on her table, with an US sender.

 

ZING: Along these same lines, do you consider it important to preserve these examples of language?  Should all languages be preserved or is there a natural linguistic Darwinism?

RG: I am not a linguistic preservationist. The world doesn’t need to be turned into a museum. Linguistic changes happen and there is a reason for it. One lady, speaking in a perfect recording-ready “historic” Austrian-German idiom told me that “today, in Vienna, even intellectuals speak like used to be only horse coachmen did.” This trend is, of course, a reflection that more people from lower classes found access to universities and knowledge.  More attention is now paid to linguistic pluralism – hence using even regional dialects in discussing subjects that are beyond regional concerns. I myself am such a case.

But for Language of Emigration, we are talking about a loss that is the result of brutal and abrupt circumstances. We are also talking about people that were ignored for a long time by their former perpetrators. When I was in school we got only rudimentiary information about these Nazi-atrocities and were not told that so many people were still living. So, getting an acoustic experience of a time destroyed was, for me, a bit like filling a void that we – post-war generations – all felt. Paying special attention to the linguistic nuances of this group of people was not only in line with the rest of my art work and my general interests (i.e. the ongoing studies of foreign languages as my art practice) but also a way to differ it from regular holocaust studies or the massive archive Spielberg has accumulated.

Your question about “natural linguistic Darwinism” I would answer with yes, if we can understand “natural” as socially made and driven by economics and politics. In this work we can see how traumatic political events followed by displacement and cultural loss played a crucial role in the lives and speeches of these emigrants --- often lives with undesirable accents.

I’m not addressing here the problem of languages that disappear because of modernization, globalization, and the general destructive movements that characterized the 20th century, including the fundamental disturbance of the last indigenous people found far away from our understanding of “civilization.” Although disappearing languages cannot be preserved by orders and wishful thinking, they can and should be recorded and documented – an endeavor I recommend for anthropologists and anthropological linguistics.

 

ZING: The 20th century had a profound effect on language, especially with Western Imperialism running at full force.  The meeting of cultures on a power-based level created a coercive relationship between the languages of the colonizer and the colonized.  Many indigenous languages experienced violence and were driven to extinction or reduced to marginalized positions.  However, some of those who learned the language of the colonizer could benefit, as Kurt Frankfurter did while in German concentration camps.  Do you have any thoughts on political history and its effect on languages?

RG: Kurt Frankfurter had an incredible history of survival based on his understanding that volunteering was saving his live. While volunteering on his day off, he not only got more to eat than during the entire work week but he also got to know the people who permanently made decisions over life and death in Auschwitz. He survived Auschwitz for nearly 3 years, which is extraordinary. To know his native German was indeed of help there. When I was spending a couple of months in Leningrad, during the end of the Soviet Era in 1991, I could observe the difference between those who spoke some foreign languages and those who knew only Russian: it was the difference between eating or not eating, the difference between knowing people from the West who had basically no choice but to go the markets where food was plenty but only affordable for those with access to Western money.

One of the biggest changes in language politics that has gone unnoticed and unlamented for, but which affected half of the world, was the disappearance of Soviet Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. All former Soviet satellite-states, extending from Eastern Europe to Northeastern Asia, including African nations, used Russian as a common language. Beginning in the early 1990s the biggest linguistic forgetting campaign initiated and everybody switched to English as a lingua franca. Currently, I’m working on a video in which a German woman complains in front of a Karl Marx statue in Chinese that the entire world is now Chinese. The text is written so we see a world where English is supplanted by Chinese, as French was by English early last century. This scenario makes a lot of sense since we only have to listen to the products we are touching, using, and consuming which already only speak Chinese. I have been studying Chinese regularly since 1999 and it is a wonderful language that can be learned as easily as any other. But what’s really interesting (and very difficult but wonderful to train people’s minds) is the Chinese character being based on a non-phonetic writing system that requires all the qualities that are needed in today’s world economies: concentration, precision, visual memory and association all combined with a lot of stamina.

 

ZING: A new system gained notoriety at the end of the 20th century.  What sort of effect do you think the Internet has had on language?

RG: Let take my own experience: I am definitely consulting on a daily basis foreign news media with a click of a finger and hence can read, see and listen to foreign languages. I also use it for my Chinese studies and can learn easily without extra costs and effort. Now to the net as such: when in the beginning it looked as if only English users were using the net, today we know that the entire world is doing so and very successfully. So, I think that the net is helping to proliferate the most dominant cultural formations through its medium in the same way to reflect their demographic, social and economical appeal and power – but not much more or less. So, if Chinese people as a demographic, economic and social force are spread over the globe, so are their communicational networks. But that goes with any group and invites even the smallest social groups to keep up with their imagined and now networked communities. It is a win-win for all be it the dominant linguistic and cultural hegemonies as well as the small and subordinate ones.

 

ZING: I noticed that the interviews were not all conducted in German.  For example, Bertold Adler’s interview was in English.  Why was this?

RG: I always ask people whether they want to speak in German or in English and some prefer English. English is also a language that was not used during their sufferings. Hence, I was told several times that saying things in English was a way to distance themselves from the past. I had also some significant examples where interviews switch back and forth between the two languages – emphasizing their reaction and affection to what they said. 

 

ZING: Alongside the interview videos are photographs of the interiors of your interviewees’ apartments.  They all seem to follow distinct styles, a vernacular similar to the particular forms of language that were being preserved.  Does this group of people play a similar role in preserving the idioms of interior décor, as well?

RG: I was very struck how often I would see German and Austrian decorum in their houses even though they must have had enough of it. Looking through their libraries and across their floors and walls is a bit like scanning their present for their past. Not only do I give a picture to a story we were told only in the most abstract terms, but we also get an idea to what degree cultural influences persist and materialize. I was often told that it wasn’t the fault of the “German language” – something that could also be said of many German and Austrian materials I saw in their homes. I remember one woman who refused to speak to me in German and was still very bitter towards anything Austrian but she offered me Mannerschnitten (Viennese cookies available in NYC delis), used Austrian wooden furniture, Austrian China, and had images of Austria everywhere.

 

ZING: Diaspora can have the effect of strengthening cultural identification.  People removed from their original geographic culture will value cultural tradition more than those in the homeland.  However, these emigrants seem to have a more tenuous relationship with their cultures while maintaining the role of preservers.  Could you give your perspective on how the people you interviewed relate to the cultures they left?

RG: The Nazi persecution of Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Social Democrats, and many others who weren’t considered Aryan and participating in Nazi empire building was horrific and disastrous in its consequences for everybody involved. People I worked with over the course of my project were basically persecuted and attacked by the same people with whom they had lived in peace up to a certain moment. Most people were quite secular and anti-Semitism wasn’t as obvious before the arrival of Hitler. They most identified with their home culture before the dominance of Nazism. Hence, cultural identification for these elderly Germans and Austrians is not easy. I always ask how they feel about Austria and Germany and most of them like it quite a bit, yet show a certain hesitation. In most cases I have been embraced by the people I visited but sometimes I was told – like in the case of Frankfurter – that had I not been introduced by a person whom he trusted, he wouldn’t have talked to me. But this was more of an exception. Many do visit Austria or Germany regularly when they are (still) in a position to do so. 

 

Rainer Ganahl’s Language of Emigration & Pictures of Emigration is on view at Alex Zachary Gallery though April 25th, 16 East 77th Street, Thu – Sun 12-6pm.  Visit www.alexzachary.com and www.ganahl.info for details.

INTERVIEW: Parking Space


 

Parking Space, a Chicago-based collaborative project initiated by Andrew J. Greene, E.J. Hill, and Matthew Schaffer, opened its second show, This Is Not For Sale, on March 12th.  This Is Not For Sale features work by Annie Purpura, Austin Eddy, Alexa Loftus, Danny Greene, Dorian McKaie, Karen Bovinich, Kristen VanDeventer, Nick Fraccaro, Nina Mayer, Tanner Veatch, and Xavier Jimenez. 

 

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

 

ZING: Let’s start with your name.  Where did it come from?

Matthew Schaffer: I think it was Andrew who came up with it. Our first show was in an abandoned garage and we thought it fitting.  Then we thought that it could be used as a concept: us parking in other people’s spaces to do shows.

Andrew J. Greene: Our name literally refers to the parking structure behind Matt’s apartment that housed our first show, but the idea of a “parking space” refers to the transitory nature of our curatorial practice as well as other “pop up art spaces” found commonly in Chicago.

EJ Hill: There was a two-car garage behind Matt’s apartment that wasn’t really being used for anything. Over the course of a couple months, we transformed the garage from a moldy storage space to Parking Space. And actually, we only had our first show there. That was the Helter Sculpture show at the end of October and it started getting really cold really quickly, so for our second show we moved things upstairs into Matt’s apartment. Then for This Is Not For Sale, we moved to my apartment. We’ve talked a bit about continuing to move around the city to different locations but keeping the name. So I think the name has taken on a completely different meaning since the days of the garage, but yes, Matt’s garage is where it all started.

 

ZING: Now you’re doing a show, This Is Not For Sale, exploring the apartment gallery, something that in my experience seems to be more prevalent in Chicago than other cities.  Why do you think is?

Andrew: I think the alternative art space has thrived in Chicago for the past several decades due primarily to fairly low rent and a Midwestern pride that wants to react against more conventional venues for art viewing. Historically, Chicago has always been a place that has demands attention with an idiosyncratic voice… deep dish pizza, the Sears tower (I guess it is called the Willis Tower now…), Vienna beef, the Cubs.  Maybe the apartment gallery is just the way our art community manifests that gimmick.

EJ: Yeah, I’ve heard this a few times now actually, that Chicago has a rich tradition of apartment galleries and alternative spaces. I haven’t had much exposure to art communities in other cities, so I just assumed that apartment galleries were the norm. I saw a show recently at a space called Medicine Cabinet, which is literally a medicine cabinet in someone’s bathroom. And I haven’t seen this yet, but I’ve been hearing that there’s a gallery inside someone’s purse. This woman walks around with a purse and if you catch her on the street, she’ll open it to show you the current work that’s being exhibited. Bizarre, right? But that’s what I love about living here. It seems if you can think it, you can do it.

 

ZING: In the press release, you state “This Is Not For Sale refuses to ignore the conventions of the alternative art space, opting to embrace the opportunities implicit with operating outside the prevailing structure of the art community.”  It seems strange to think of alternative art spaces abiding by conventions since the idea behind an “alternative” art space seems to be to avoid convention.  Can you define these conventions as you see them, maybe in Chicago in particular?  What opportunities are available outside the structure of the art community? 

Andrew: In my understanding of “the conventions of the alternative art space,” I see the opportunity to take curatorial and artistic risks in a supportive environment (made up mostly of peers) that should be motivated by a desire to move forward with an artistic discourse that attempts in some way to re-contextualize or reposition what it means to make/show art in a contemporary setting. In a sense, an alternative art space should be defined by its innate institutional critique (in its “do-it-yourself” structure) and its ability to react against the short-comings in communication that the commodity driven art market seems to produce.  Unfortunately, the idea of the alternative art space has been marginalized to such an extent that oftentimes its participants forget the “alt space’s” prescribed role as catalyst to the “avant-garde” and only poorly mimic more institutional spaces.  In theory, an alternative art space has the ability to communicate with a much more captive audience than more conventional art spaces and thusly should be motivated to take risks to create a dialogue with that audience.

EJ: Planning this show was a bit tricky in the beginning because we knew we wanted to have it in an apartment but we didn’t want it to be just another apartment gallery show. And that term “alternative space” is a tough one too, because granted, our shows aren’t in white-walled, traditional gallery spaces with track lighting, but how many times can something be alternative before it becomes mainstream? There are apartment galleries all over this city and for the openings, all of the furniture and other objects that are normally in a living space are moved or stuffed into bedrooms and closets, in an attempt to mimic “the real thing.” For this show, we said fuck it, we’re not emptying the living room and moving the TV and couch into bedrooms. This is an apartment, not a commercial gallery. We’re not trying to sell anything or compete with others in any sort of market. We just want to be around good people making interesting work and create dialogue within the larger Chicago art community. And because we’re more concerned with building community and exhibiting work and less concerned with turning a buck, there’s more room for experimentation and taking risks. So we went forward with acknowledging the space for what it is and what it isn’t, and made that the subject of the show.

Matthew: We have the luxury of not having to worry about making money, so we have the freedom to show work that cannot be purchased (performances and site specific works). Opportunities: we can do what we want and don’t have to justify or answer to anyone but ourselves.

 

ZING: Any other thoughts on the Chicago art community?  How do you think it fits in with the national / international art scene?  Are there any regional qualities that make Chicago distinct? 

EJ: On the home front, Chicago is definitely the underdog. You’ve got New York and L.A. as the powerhouse players and a lot of the time, Chicago gets overlooked. I’m still not sure how I feel about that though. Because sometimes I enjoy being a part of a well-kept secret of Chicago being this gem between the two coasts, and other times, I want nothing more than for Chicago to be able to play on the “big kids’ playground.” It’s definitely a more affordable place to live than New York or L.A. and that may contribute to why new galleries and exhibition spaces are popping up all the time in apartments, storefronts and even garages. Chicago is also a huge city with a small Midwestern hometown kind of feel. During my first month of living here, I was riding the subway and working in my sketchbook when the woman sitting next to me started telling me how her children are artists too. Before she got out at her stop, she gave me her card and invited me to dinner so I could meet them. I haven’t been in many cities where people are able to slow down just enough to actually engage with the person sitting next to them, but it seems to happen quite often here.

Andrew: In a way Chicago is self-defeating: too many of our artists continue to leave for NYC or LA, and in general Chicago’s yearn for international “stardom” has always been paradoxical. Chicago demands to be treated as an equal to New York and Los Angeles, but in that demand the city undercuts its potential by acting subservient to other locales. There is a community of people here that have stuck it out and have become successful, but at a certain level of success the majority will always seek a larger pond to be a bigger fish within.
 

 

ZING: How did you find this group of artists? Most of them appear to be Chicago-based.  Is there are reason why you chose mostly Chicago artists?

 

Andrew: We sat down together and thought about whom of our peers could best contribute to the conversation we had started about the apartment's dual role as living space and as art space. Keeping in mind that we wanted to pull from the several communities that are sometimes at odds with each other, we wanted to curate in such a way that positioned somewhat more well known young artists (within Chicago) with lesser known artists as a means to create a platform to democratize who was allowed to participate in the conversation within Chicago.

EJ: When we sat down and came up with the curatorial concept of the show, we considered artists whose work or way of working would best fit that idea. We were familiar with the artists’ work in some capacity and selected them based on their current practice and many of them having shown in apartment galleries several times before. We’re all students as well, so a lot of the artists we’ve met individually or through Parking Space are other students, faculty or administrators at Chicago academic institutions. And these artists are very familiar with the apartment as exhibition space and could speak earnestly about what that means to them and to the rest of the Chicago art community.

Matthew: We are artists in Chicago and we hangout with other Chicago-based artists, so it’s just natural. We would like to build a strong sense of community. Before we started we noticed that there were shows where all students were from either SAIC or Columbia and we thought that it was a bit of a drag that we all couldn’t come together. So, when we choose artists for shows we try to pull from all the art communities in Chicago, and being that Andrew is at SAIC and EJ and I are from Columbia, we have a real opportunity to pull from our respective groups.

 

ZING: The show is titled “This Is Not For Sale.” Will the artwork in the exhibition not be sold?  Given that it’s an apartment show, could it be a reference to real estate? 

Andrew: The work in the show was not for sale. In this way we felt that we were dealing directly with some of the "conventions of an alternative art space," a place where ideas should be more important than potential monetary gain. A majority of the work was made and installed specifically for the space and operated performatively, therefore somewhat negating its marketability as a sellable good. We were also very aware that the title of the show could simultaneously refer to the fact that an apartment is indeed "not for sale," and enjoyed that we could use that title as a starting point for curation.

EJ: Paying bills, buying groceries, buying materials to make art… all of this stuff adds up financially. It would be more than nice to be able to pay for it all by selling work, but generally speaking, the majority of audiences at apartment shows are not there to buy anything. It’s a different kind of vibe and that’s what we wanted to explore with this show. We had agreed that if anyone wanted to buy a work, we would cross that bridge once we got there and so far, it hasn’t come up. As far as a head nod to real estate, I never had that in mind, but it’s interesting you mention that especially since Parking Space doesn’t have a permanent or even consistent home. We’ve had a show in a different space each time, which definitely reflects the living patterns of young people in cities.
 

ZING: Can you elaborate on the statement “This Is Not For Sale demands an artistic discourse where context and concept are directly correlated?” 

EJ: The work in the show directly referenced and interacted with the space as a site for exhibiting artwork but also a site for making toast, sleeping or taking a shower. Since these sites are so unique to Chicago and since we were using my apartment this time, the most exciting part for me was just seeing how the artists would creatively respond to where I live. But I think we were all pretty excited to explore the intersections between the properties of the space itself and the subject of the work in hopes to raise questions about how reliant they are upon one another.

Andrew: An artistic discourse where context and concept are correlated is one where an artist does not ignore site specificity and therefore deals with the baggage of a space or context and allows that context to influence how the work operates conceptually. In "This is Not For Sale," we wanted the artist to be aware of how his or her work dealt directly with how an apartment can function multi-stably as a living space and as a space to show artwork.
 

ZING: Where did you get the idea to start Parking Space?   

Matthew: Andrew and I where playing basketball behind my apartment and next to the court was an old abandoned garage, so we decided to explore it and Andrew jokingly said that we should have a show it here. Then we had some drinks and talked about it some more.  EJ was excited at the idea and it just kinda started from a basketball game, curiosity, and drinking and then a lot of hard work.

Andrew: When we conceived Parking Space, we collectively saw the need to build a bridge between the disparate art communities within Chicago that have been created out of previously existing institutional structures. There was and still is a defined lack of communication within what is a relatively small city. We saw and still see the opportunity to for our city to look inward and prop itself up. Essentially, we have to fight for each other or we face the risk of remaining perpetually subservient to other cities. We saw Parking Space as a small way of doing that.

EJ: It was Matt and Andrew who initially talked about it and I was pumped on the idea. I offered to help out in any way that I could so we made some Home Depot runs a few times, cleaned and painted the garage, fixed some things and off we went.
 

ZING: The three of you are artists, as well.  How do you think this affects your perspective as curators / project co-directors? 

Andrew: Because we are artists, our role allows us to take certain liberties with curatorial decisions that a traditional curator could not make due to monetary restrictions or popularity of idea. As artist-curators it allows us to organize shows around concepts we may not be able to directly manifest within our own work, therefore allowing us to speak in a voice we normally couldn't communicate with.

EJ: We’re more flexible. We understand how artists operate and how important it is to be able to show your work. It’s really a group effort in every sense and not just between the three of us, but for all of the artists involved in our shows. Everyone brings something different to the table and gearing into a show presents us with a very different group dynamic each time. It’s challenging and sometimes really stressful but we all want to show the best work we can. So I think we’re all willing to work very closely with the artists and each other to make that happen. We’re not wearing white gloves and directing people where to arrange things. We’re up on ladders, drilling, getting dirty and installing work too.

Matthew: It is easier to communicate ideas and concepts to a fellow artist than it is to business person.

 

ZING: Who should we look out for in Chicago, in terms of artists / spaces / writers / bands / anything cultural?  Any recommendations for visitors? 

 

Andrew: THIS IS VERY DIFFICULT, I’ll try and be as succinct as possible.

 

Spaces: Monument 2 Gallery, Golden Gallery, Roots and Culture, SubCity Projects, The Suburban, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Shane Campbell Gallery, Dan Devening Projects and Editions, Julius Ceasar, Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Happy Collaborationists Space

 

Bands: Dad, White Car, Geffika

 

Matthew: Jettison magazine is a really great (currently) web based publication coming out of Chicago and The Smith Westerns are an amazing young Chicago band.

EJ: Jettison Quarterly is doing huge things here in Chicago. It’s an online publication that you should definitely keep your eye on. Happy Collaborationists Exhibition Space is also making waves. They are committed mostly to performance and installation work and just really great people to work with.

 

ZING: Anything else coming up that people should know about?

EJ: I’m showing a new work titled Solo Exhibition at Happy Collaborationists Exhibition Space on Saturday, April 3rd from 7-10pm. I’ll also be participating in a group performance including Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes of La Pocha Nostra at The Conaway Center at Columbia College on Saturday, April 17th at 5pm. And of course, more shows from Parking Space are sure to come.

Matthew: MORE SHOWS!!!

Andrew: More shows in Chicago... Look for Parking Space and a little taste of Chicago in your city coming soon.

 

 

PARKING SPACE is currently located at 2246 W 19th St, #3R, btw S Oakley Ave and S Leavitt St.  Email them at parkingspacechicago@gmail.com for more information.

 

 

INTERVIEW: Renny Ramakers


Slow glow lamp for Droog by NEXT Architects & Aura Luz Melis

Photographer: Robaard/Theuwkens (Styling by Marjo Kranenborg, CMK)


Renny Ramakers is co-founder and director of Dutch conceptual design company Droog.  We first worked with Droog during Pioneers of Change, a festival of Dutch design, fashion, and architecture on Governor’s Island, which occurred in Fall 2009 during NY400 week, a celebration of Dutch culture in New York.  Mary Barone and I met with Renny and Sheldon LaPierre at the Droog storefront in Soho to discuss slow food, Droog, and the future of design.

 

Brandon Johnson: The Pioneers of Change is our launching point, since that is when we first came in contact.  We donated zingmagazines to be placed in the Go Slow Café.  We’re interested in your involvement in the slow food movement, or how that relates to the Go Slow Café, and how it all ties in with Droog and your ideas about design.

Renny Ramakers:  We started the Go Slow Café in 2004.  Not because of the slow food movement.  The slow food movement is based on regional qualities.  It started in Italy and is based on using what to land is giving you, not transporting it all over the world.  That is part of it, but was not the main objective.  The main objective was to give attention to processes.  Because we live in a world where you only buy final products—especially here in the States.  If I go for an orange juice, it’s already there.  In the Go Slow Café, in Milan where we first presented it, we were pressing the orange juice by hand.  And maybe that’s not allowed here…

B: It’s allowed, some places do it but it’s more expensive.

R: You see the people don’t know where things are coming from.  Children think that milk comes from a factory and not a cow.  So, that was behind it.  The second thing we wanted was the serving and preparing of the food to be done with attention and care and people who would sit down at the Go Slow Café didn’t have to hurry.  They can sit and have a nice time.  They can sit there all night if they wanted to.

B: That’s perfect for Governor’s Island, as a location, an escape from the city.  When I was out there to drop off the magazines, it was a like a whole other world coming from the Financial District where the ferry departs.

R: We also did it in Milan.  There was a big hustle and bustle, everyone was excited to see as many shows as possible during the furniture fair, but they sat down and spent hours at our café.

Mary Barone: The city is so frantic during the Milan Furniture Fair.

R: The idea of using seniors [as employees of the café] opposes the normal practice of using people who are very young as they are cheap and maybe because they are easier.  Instead we used retired people to work at the café for the week at Milan and two weeks at Governor’s Island.  People loved it.

M: Yes, I ate there.  They were wonderful.

R: We have done it in Toyko, we have done it in London.  In London we had ninety-year-old ladies.  They had to sit very often, which was not a problem, but every half hour they would sit down.  And in Tokyo we had a man in his eighties, and he was so young—so fit and energetic.  It was wonderful because people are used to being served by younger people and here there were people who could be their grandmother or grandfather.  In Milan, they started singing songs from the childhood and giving massages.

B: In that sense, the “slow movement” is literalized in the word “slow”.  I had previously interviewed an artist in Williamsburg, Mike Ballou, about an installation he did at a restaurant called Diner.  They source their beef from a farm in upstate New York and he did a large sculptural portrait of a cow from that farm, which was then placed on top the restaurant.  The individual, the original source is represented in that piece.  Now, Droog is taking it in a more literal linguistic sense, slowing down the process of eating.

R: Yes, very serious, but we also want things to have a twist.

B: Right, because there’s some humor to it as well.

M: When I dined at the Go Slow Café on Governor’s Island, the food was represented in a diagram according to its origin.  Like where the walnut came from.  Then it finalized on something very traditional.

R: The moon.  Black and white powder.  It’s a kind of licorice.  We say it’s dust from the moon.   But the idea is that food is transported all over the word.  We wanted to show the food in proportion to its distance traveled.  So, there was very little “moon powder” because it had to arrive from the moon, so to speak.  It gives you an idea of where the food is coming from.

B: And obviously it takes energy to transport the food.

R: And that’s a damaging thing.

M: They sourced the ham from West Virginia.

R: The butter from Russia.

B: So, it’s proportionate to the distance it traveled?

R: Yes.  It’s a message that you can eat a lot of the things that are grown around you and less of things that come from far away, like Japan.

B: Makes sense.

M: One always thinks you need Italian prosciutto or Serrano ham from Spain, but it fact there are delicious hams nearby.

R: There you go.

B: How would you tie the Go Slow Café into Droog in a larger sense?

R: It’s part of our whole philosophy.  You see there are objects here in the storefront.  But most of the objects are coming from our projects.  For example, the Slow Glow lamp in the window, had been designed for the Go Slow Café, but now we are selling it.

B: That lightbulb lamp?

R: It’s filled with fat.  When you plug it in the fat is solid, but as it heats up, the fat slowly melts.  It was a product of the project.

M: Who designed that?

R: NEXT Architects.  We have all been interested in a conceptual approach and projects that activate the visitor.  Interaction is very important to us as well as showing processes.  Many of our products are based on interactions, like the marble bench downstairs.  It’s an experience.

It’s part of our philosophy to produce things that make people happy.  Many people start smiling when they see our products.  There’s a sense of humor, but it is understated.

M:  it’s a dry sense of humor.  Because “droog” means dry, right?  The English are said to have a very dry sense of humor.  The Dutch, I think, as well.

R: Yes, it’s the same word in Dutch.  There’s always a twist.  It’s not meant to make something humorous.  It’s meant to produce something to make people happy or to convey a message, or something else along those lines.

B: What’s going on at Droog now?  Any upcoming projects we should be talking about?

R: We want to continue with Pioneers or Change.  We are now talking about presenting it in Bangkok, but it’s still very early.  Pioneers of Change can be repeated in every city all over the world.  It’s based on collaboration with local parties, interaction, local context, and current topics.  The second part is Droog lab.  We started this last year.  The first one we did in Dubai.  The leaders of the Droog Lab are always one or two established designers, so Rami Farook, Jurgen Bey, and Saskia van Drimmelen went to Dubai with a few designers.  The idea is that you go to a region, learn from a region, be inspired by a region and come back with something new.  Our goal, and this is very ambitious, is to define the next generation of design.  When I started Droog lab, I noticed that entire design world is only concerned with products.  We had these fantastic projects in Milan, but the press is only showing a few products.  Also, many designers are only interested in making products, limited editions.  We also produce limited editions, but for us a story is more important than owning an object.  Because it’s been going so well that last few years with studio work in limited editions, you see companies asking designers to do limited editions.  So, there’s no story anymore.  There are too many objects in the world right now and not enough stories. 

M: What are the designers in Dubai working on?

R: Yes, this is where we are leading into.  They went to Dubai and came back with all kinds of observations.  Now they are working on a new model, presented digitally, of collaborative design.  I cannot explain it yet, because it is being developed.  But there is a new model based in collaboration that will eventually produce products.  Also, maybe a different kind of currency based in time.  The original ideas have nothing to do with objects or products, but in the end there will be a number of very beautiful products based on this philosophy.

The second group is going to northern Canada in June.  The topic is sustainability.  Winy Maas and Cynthia Hathaway, she’s Canadian.  There are always also local designers involved.  They’re going to see how the Inuit people in the far north survive, to learn their way of living.  I have no idea when they are coming back.

M: That’s very exciting!

R: We want to do a third project in New York, based on the service economy here.  Yesterday on the street I saw someone walking with the dogs.  Dogwalker is a new profession.  I’ve only seen it here.  We don’t see it as something negative or positive, but only interesting.

Sheldon LaPierre: One thing that resonates for me about the lab is that it’s about exploiting already positive qualities of an existing situation.  The designers are not saying “We’re here to provide a solution, we’re here to attack a problem.”  It’s not that way at all.

R:  There is no problem for them.

S: It’s about using these qualities that may already exist in this inherent situation—something I’ve even tried to employ a bit in my own life having learned about this method.  The person who manages the lab will actually be here later today.

R: Perhaps I should explain why they came back from Dubai with this model.  They saw three clear qualities of Dubai.  For one, it’s very ambitious because it’s a desert.  They have made this entire city out of nothing.  The second is that there is a wide hierarchy.  The top is very small, only the sheiks.  The third thing is that Dubai is a hub.  A hub for richness, for luxury.  We wanted to make a hub of content, creation.  Those were the observations and that’s why they came back with this model.  A few weeks ago I told this to someone and they said I was not critical of Dubai.  I said “Of course we are critical.  But that’s not the issue at this moment.”  We are critical of this hierarchy where some have outrageous amounts of money and others have none.  So, we’re thinking about a timebank, where you pay with time or with something you are able to do.  Someone is a hairdresser and pays for their purchase with a haircut.  It’s just a model of course, but that’s where it comes from.

There’s one more activity we would like to pursue.  We are presenting a kind of parasite product.  Say you have a porcelain cup produced in China.  If it were made in our countries, you could not afford it.  It comes from China, and it’s not quite right, so it goes back and forth all the time.  Because of this, it takes a long time for products to be developed.  We were also thinking there are already so many objects in existence already.  We have glasses, our neighbor has glasses, the shop down the street has glasses.  Do we need so much glassware?  Then there’s the financial crisis.  Each month in Holland there are 500 companies that go bankrupt.  What happens to their products, their inventory?  It goes to auctions on the internet.  We started bidding on all kinds of items: napkins, a table, glasses, you name and we bought it.  We asked about 15 designers to see this as their raw material.  Each designer came up with an idea.  There’s a lot of commentary.  It’s fantastic.  In three months time, we will present about 20 new products.

B: Based on the products that were procured from the auctions.

R: The designers came up with such unexpected things.  One example, not sure if he will succeed, was given a water dispenser.  A cooler.  He has taken it apart and is making a perfume dispenser from it.  He also has 100 salt glasses that he making into perfume containers.  This whole idea gives a new brainwave for designers.  They don’t have to think about the system, the system is there.  They just have to stage it.  That goes for all the products.  There is cutlery, which takes years to design.  But here, the designer already has it at hand.

M: Will you be staging an exhibition here?

R: In Milan.  We will sell as much as possible.  If we have things left we will sell it in the storefront here in New York.

M: The fair’s coming up soon?

S: April.

R: They will be limited editions because there is only so much material available.  We are also thinking about moving beyond bankruptcy auctions to work with existing things.

S: To make access limited is interesting.  A new perspective.

R: We work with other companies as well who demonstrate a similar spirit.

B: I was reading up on the history of Droog before coming here and it’s interesting how these ideas tie in with the founding of the company, designers using discarded and pre-existing materials.  It goes all the way back.

R: It’s not on purpose, we aren’t forcing ourselves to do it.

B: It’s natural?

R: The idea returns in a cycle.  It’s in my genes to do these types of projects.

M: The store is a great resource in SoHo.

R: Yes, we are trying to make it more lively.  In the beginning we were a bit of a showroom and now we’re trying to change that by bringing in smaller items and doing more interactive projects.

B: We’re looking forward to it.

INTERVIEW: Margaret Lee

 

 

Michele Abeles/Margaret Lee\Darren Bader

A project organized by Margaret Lee at White Columns in New York

Devon Dikeou: Margaret, how did you come up with/organize the idea for the show, the pairings, the idea of collaborating and reacting to, well potatoes . . . and each other as artists, much less the curatorial combination of artists.

Margeret Lee:

HI Devon

The title of the show is actually those 3 icons, camera, potato, cd/music note.  When Matthew invited me to do something in a White Room, I drew a complete blank for a few days.  I knew that I wanted to use my potatoes again.  I had used them in two other installations but neither of those times did I think they were being used the way I thought I wanted them to be used.  I originally started making the potatoes as a way of pairing down my practice into something really basic; I wanted to have something almost neutral to use in creating pairs or in coming up with absurd pairings between disparate objects. 

With them as my base, I started thinking of artists/works I have seen recently. Michele Abeles and I met in the desert (Joshua Tree) while participating in a HDTS.  I first saw her photos there and immediately knew there was some kinship – mostly because she took the kind of photos I would like to take if I had any photography skills – cold, almost dead, unnatural, with little emotion between herself and her subjects.  There was a photo of a plant with a hand in front of it which I saw a few months before getting the White Room invitation and it was in recalling that image that I knew I wanted to work with Michele.   I really wanted to see my potatoes in her photos (or that photo specifically) but did not want her to take portraits of them as singular artworks.  Rather, I wanted them to disappear into the background or be featured in an arrangement of her liking.  I wasn’t sure what would come out of this fusion, which I wouldn’t call collaboration.  First off, I told Michele that she would have full control of the image and could do as she pleased with the potatoes.  With that, we decided to meet in a few weeks/months and see what came about.  I then sought out Darren Bader, who I barely knew but felt as though maybe we approached art making in a similar way, or at least looked at art making in a similar way – since I had just gotten into curating and using other artists’ works within my own pieces and Darren, well read his book James Earl Scones and you will understand.  We met and talked a bit about the project, though no specifics were exchanged.  I again made sure Darren understood that I was not handing him an assignment or asking to collaborate on something, although in the end we did end up collaborating on the chair/speaker/potato sculpture.

Neither Darren nor Michele had any communication during the process.  They had never met.  I wanted each artist to have a relationship to the potatoes rather than to each other.

DD: How did your thinking as both an artist and organizer influence the other artists and vice versa?

ML: I think Michele, who doesn’t collaborate, had a difficult time with this at first.   But she was really familiar with my last curatorial project, “Today and Everyday,” and understood where I was coming from.  Though I invited her from a curatorial standpoint, we discussed the show as two artists.  She didn’t need to ask me for permission to do anything and I told her to continue making the photos she was in the process of making but try to subtly insert the potatoes into her compositions, without having to make them the focal point.  When Michele was done with her photos, I passed them along to Darren.  At this point, I still wasn’t sure what the final installation would look like or what Darren would bring to the room, which I think we all felt OK about because of my dual role as curator/artist.  There is something about that hybrid that I think makes the wide-open and unknown doable because the show was not curated in a traditional sense; it’s not based around a formal or thematic statement.  I wasn’t trying to push artworks into a story that I created before hand.  Rather, I wanted the story to unfold while we moved ahead.  Also, in working with other artists, especially one like Darren, you know that you can’t force your agenda onto them and their work and how it is organized.           

DD: How orchestrated or incidental was the outcome?

ML: I was absolutely devastated when Michele sent me her two first photos.  Both of them featured a naked male body part.  It’s funny, because although I told Michele that she could do whatever she liked, I never considered that she would use male nudity, mostly because I would never, ever in a million years consider using male nudity since I never include the human figure in my work.  I laughed and told her I was having difficulty with them.  She understood but asked me to sit with them and also sent me some others.  In the end I chose one of the two difficult images.  Actually, I chose the more difficult and graphic one.  Darren only told me that he wanted to include the song “No One” by Alicia Keys (a song I’d never really liked before).  Darren and I met repeatedly, talking about possibilities but we both knew that we wouldn’t really know until the installation started.  Part of the project was working with unknown elements, the outcome was supposed to be incidental or at least I wanted the elements to be incidental.  My goal was to take these incidentals and pull them together into a really tight installation that looked like a solo show.

DD: Speak about the application icons that appear on the invite, website, press material, as well as alongside the actual images of the show: camera, potato, tunes . . .

ML: I wanted to come up with a title for the project but since it was a non-thematic three-person show, I found myself resistant to coming up with a catchy title.  Recently, I’ve been obsessed with emoticons on my iPhone, these cute little icons that stand in for words.  I find myself sending messages like “balloon, wrapped present, champagne glass, cake” to say “Happy Birthday”.  So, for this project, I reduced each artist and their included work down to an icon, basically to convey who was bringing what.  I liked using this “new” language.  It seemed web 2.0 to me, as did the actual project.  Not in that we were using technology in any way, but in approaching the project using: interactivity, collaborative authoring, and a move away from individuality, the last of the three points being the most important to me.  In reducing an artist and their work into these icons, that could be interchangeable and reused, I felt like it was a nice move away from the idea of the singular artist as genius concept.  Also, the title of the show is also an artwork.  I made the icons myself and the grouping is now a wall piece in an edition of 10.           

DD: We can all imagine from experience what the tune icon implies, as well as that of the camera. What does the potato application do, or what could it potentially do.

ML: It’s funny because there was no other option but to have the potato icon, since that is all I brought to the project.  It’s the most absurd of the icons and I like the way it is something very “natural” in between two “technological” implications.  The potato icon, nestled in between, also conveyed to me something really human and basic.   These potato sculptures connected the works and the artists.  It is an unlikely function for them, but a good one!

DD: There are elements of tension between realism and photorealism, as well as a dialogue between constructed space and literal space. These dichotomies are the thrust of several divergent artists whose work seems to be not just influential, but is almost echoed or specifically cited and twisted in the work of all three artists. This range of artists—from Rachel Harrison to Frank Stella, Robert Mapplethorpe, John Miller, and Richard Estes—even Magritte comes to mind in varying degrees. Please speak about your influences, as well as the mark that the mentioned artists might or might not have on your communal strategy as well as the individual strategy of each of artist in the grouping.

ML: This is a hard one for me to answer.  I don’t like thinking of the trajectory of art in linear terms anymore.  Part of the Web 2.0 mentality that I like or identify with is you are bombarded with images/ideas that you really could not process in a rational, linear sense.  You take bits and pieces and they come together in ways that are unexpected.  You find yourself looking at say, a Magritte (who, of the artists you list, I think would be the strongest influence), and then find yourself thinking about some funny video you saw on youtube, rather than what came before or after the Magritte in art terms.  I could say supermarkets, interior design, Madison Avenue and the museum gift store, influence me just as much or more than artists who have influenced me in the past.  But if I were to mention anyone, it would be Louise Lawler. 

The communal strategy comes out of a desire to contextualize work again, after years of Art standing as luxury good and galleries showcasing work as such.  It’s an attempt of my part not to make or showcase work for the mid-century modern home.  The shared authoring of the project stands in complete opposition to artistic genius and curatorial wit.

DD: Onto something a little less, less or more . . . What do you think about ketchup or catsup . . .

And about steak? What do you think your collaborators think of it?

ML: Ah, Darren would LOVE this question.  I don’t eat steak but love ketchup, though I’m trying not to eat it since it’s so salty and kills your taste buds for hours.  But French fries without ketchup is a sad thought; I’m too American to give it up. [Editor’s note: Jonathan Swift coined the spelling "catsup" in 1730.]

DD: There is a balance between trompe l’oeil and found objects that is both coolly obscuring and hotly obvious in this show. Brillo vs Ballantine Ale, or rather Brillo and Ballantine Ale vs Hans Haacke.

ML: THANKS!  I want the Brillo and Ballantine Ale.  I’m hoping that we are moving in a direction when artists realized the limitations of making “political” art and see that the politics are actually in your movements and actions.  I just don’t see the point of making political art and showing it in a commercial gallery nor do I think I am making political art at all. It’s never my intention.  I don’t want to comment on institutionalism, I want to move away from it, without strong rhetoric.  It’s not so complicated for me.  I want art to live in a space and feel alive for the duration of the exhibition.

DD: Where do potatoes and you go from here?

ML: Hmmm, dunno really.  Potatoes may be retired for a bit.  From now until the end of May, most of my energy will go into trying to keep 179 Canal going.  I think I will try to practice playing the piano and work on my cake decorating skills. 

 

See Michele Abeles/Margaret Lee\Darren Bader at White Columns, 320 W. 13th St (enter on Horatio) through February 27th, 2010. 

More info on Margaret’s non-profit space 179 Canal can be found at http://www.179canal.com.

 


INTERVIEW: Jeremy Dehn & John Hoff

 

Miracle Investigators is a satirical short film about the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican office charged with validating or disproving alleged miracles worldwide. Taking this concept to its (absurdly) logical conclusion, Miracle Investigators recasts itself in the mold of a buddy cop movie, making the investigators the quarrelsome, mismatched heroes recognizable from countless cop films and TV shows. Featuring strong performances from some of Austin’s most recognized actors, an irreverently amusing script, and a surprise climactic confrontation that carries the film into a whole new realm of satire, Miracle Investigators is a unique comedy worth the penance you’ll have to do for laughing. “

—From www.miracleinvestigators.com

 

Dikeou Collection director, Jessica Hughes, interviews Jeremy Dehn, director of Miracle Investigators, and John Hoff, who plays Cardinal Thomas.

So, tell me a little bit about the background of the film and how you two met.

JD: I made this film as a graduate student at the University of Texas. This was actually my thesis film.

JH: And we met each other through a casting call. Jeremy had posted an ad for it on AustinActors.com, which is sort of like a craigslist, but for actors only.

And how did you two decide to work with each other?

JH: I’ve been acting for 20-plus years, so, while they’re obviously evaluating me at casting calls, I’m evaluating them as well. I loved the audition, and I loved that improv was a part of the audition.

JD: John kept emailing me beforehand, asking to see the script, and had all of these questions. I almost blew him off, actually. I thought, “Who the hell is this guy?”

So how did the casting call go?

JD: I had a well-trained actor as a reader for the audition, which helped a lot because then he could sort of give his opinion of the actors, too. As soon as John left the room, he said “That’s your guy!” He could hardly wait to tell me.

How did you decide on a part that was fitting for John?

JD: I didn’t really know what to do with John at first. He was too young to play the old priest, but too old to play the young priest. So, I ended up re-conceiving his character [Cardinal Thomas]. Originally, that character was going to be a 60-year-old man. Afterwards, I wasn’t really sure why I was so attached to that idea. In this process you get attached to certain things, but then you learn to let go. I learned that in the auditioning process, too; it’s how I learned to start auditioning actors with improv. I think in the beginning our egos are too fragile to really do that.

JH: I think that’s probably why the same directors and actors work together on multiple films. In this case, Jeremy had a very clear vision, but he was also open to ideas, which is important.

Are you working on any other projects where you two might collaborate again?

JD: There are definitely other projects in development, and I’d love to work with John again. There’s so much planning and so many things that need to come together to make a film, though, so you really have to be in love with the idea before you start on it, start getting financial support and everything else. But there are definitely projects in the developmental stages.

How did you get financial support for Miracle Investigators?

JD: Well, I did have some grant money, but a lot of it was out of my own pocket. Really, I looked at it as an investment in film school. And the whole thing was shot on film (rather than video), which is over $5,000 alone. I mean, financially, I’ll never make that money back, but I’m happy with the film.

You both started in Austin, but now you both live in Denver. How did that happen?

JH: After we stopped filming, my family and I went to Norway for two months, then spent two weeks in Denver, then went back to Austin. Once we got back to Austin, we said “Ew, it’s too hot and humid here. Let’s move”, so we did. We just packed up and moved.

JD: For me, it was because I got a teaching job at the University of Denver. I’m originally from CO, too, though. I grew up in Pueblo and my wife’s family is in Aurora.

So, it was just a strange coincidence that you both ended up here?

JH: It really was. And we ended up moving in just a few houses down from each other.


JD: Yeah, and at almost the same time, too. I think we moved in like 6 days after you guys did, John.

Where else has the film been showing lately?

JD: It just played at the Friar’s Club, which seems like a Kiwanis Club for NY comedians. It was so neat to sit at the bar and look at pictures of famous people like Dean Martin sitting at the same bar. We usually do better with this film at comedy film festivals, too.

Where else has the film been shown?

JD: Last night was our 22nd showing of the film at a festival. But Vail, Austin, and the Friar’s Club have really been the highlights for me.

What sorts of films influenced Miracle Investigators?

JD: Well, definitely buddy cop movies. I mean, that’s all I watched for 3 or 4 years in middle school-high school.

Any particular films that were especially influential?

JD: This is such a hard question to answer, because if I say really good films, then I end up sounding arrogant, like my films are as good as those. But I’d say everything from Charlie’s Angels to Kung Fu movies like Iron Monkey. Iron Monkey is a really great one, one of my favorites. But, I mean, our film is no Iron Monkey.

John, what kind of influences did you use for your acting in the film, or did you develop a unique style for playing the role?

JH: I definitely worked on developing my own style for the character, and I do that by placing myself into the character and reacting to things the way my character would react. But I also like to observe other actors and say “I’d like to try that.” For instance, Michael Kane never blinks. They’ll be doing close-ups of him and he never blinks. I also trained in NY, so I learned different methods there.

What kinds of methods do you prefer?

JH: Well, for example, some actors like to use sense memory. One time, I had to cry for a role, and my daughter asked me what I was thinking about to make myself cry. Like, “Were you thinking about our dog that died last year?” I don’t use this method. For me, it takes me out of the moment. I would rather immerse myself in the character and get into it that way. That’s called the Meisner method.

Where did you go to school, and for what?

JH: I went to the University of Texas and got a business degree, actually. Then, one time, I was on a plane talking to a lawyer, and he mentioned he was going to be late for an acting class. I asked him why he was taking an acting class if he was a lawyer, and he said it helped him be more comfortable with public speaking. So, I decided to do that too. I only took acting to speak more comfortably in front of people. Then I went to NYC to the Academy of Dramatic Arts.

What was your favorite part of making the film?

JH: My favorite was the fight scene. It was just so cool and really fun to shoot.

JD: I agree, it was my favorite, too. It was a drawn out part, and the part I’m most proud of. It took us three solid, 14-hour days to complete it. 

Being a low-budget film, were most people involved working as volunteers?

JD: Most people worked for free, yes. Which is actually really cool, because the people involved were just as into it as I was. At first, I felt bad, but by the end you realize that you’re not actually asking them to sacrifice as much because they are just as into it as you are.

JH: People are not going to volunteer for something they hate. Which is why it was important for me, as an actor, to make sure that he had a good script and a good vision. I asked all those questions beforehand to make sure Jeremy had his shit together.

Did Jeremy have his shit together?

JH: Yes, definitely.

JD: It really is important, though, because when you work on a film, it gets to be an intimate relationship. There is an element of honesty. People tend to overlook how important that chemistry is, I think. There’s an upside and a downside to working for free. If it’s a bad project, then you start thinking maybe you should go out and get a real job. But, in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

John, how did you keep a straight face while playing your character?

JH: I think the best comedies are the ones in which the characters have no idea they’re in a comedy. The actors treat it as a drama. So I would be completely serious when the camera was rolling, and then as soon as the camera turns off, it’s all laughs.

So, immersing yourself in the character was crucial.

JH: Right. I knew my character, and I knew exactly what he would do in these situations. You don’t judge the character you’re playing, you just become the character.

Have you gotten any negative response to the controversial nature of the film?

JD: There were a couple of people that refused to be involved because of the subject matter. But, honestly, I think Miracle Investigators is pretty tame satire. It could have been way harsher than it was. 

JH: I met some Catholics at the screening, and they thought it was just hilarious.

JD: I mean, I wasn’t trying to attack Catholicism or anything. I was trying to attack the uncritical following of any religion. I was attacking the idea of following something without asking or knowing why. There are some serious moments in the movie where we pause and show this theme. It pauses for the serious moment, and then we get back to the ass-kicking.

What did you think of the screening last night?

JD: I think it’s all about the attitude of the spectators, and I think the Festivus atmosphere was great. People were very open and ready to enjoy the films.

JH: As a spectator, I loved the atmosphere. It was so neat to be around other people who really enjoy film, too.

JD: There are usually two different atmospheres at film festivals: people there to judge the pieces as artwork and people there to enjoy the films. I think the word “festival” is really appropriate for this, because it really was a celebration of accomplishments.

 

Miracle Investigators screened at the Festivus Film Festival on January 14 at the Bug Theatre in Denver, CO.

INTERVIEW: Sari Carel

 

Cast & Bridge, 9 minutes, 2007, video projection

 

Sari Carel granted me access to her studio in the nefarious no man’s land near the Navy Yard in Brooklyn.  Sari made me green tea, showed me a new film, “Olive Glove”, and we talked about her show now up at Momenta Art in Williamsburg, fantasies, clowns, and Koko: The Talking Gorilla, among other things.  She has a project called “The Beekeeper” in the current issue of zingmagazine, #21 (available at your local independent bookstore / museum).  Sari also interviewed Dave Hickey in issue #14, which can be seen here.  Now it’s Sari’s turn for the hotseat:

Brandon: I was thinking about it and I guess I sort of lied when I said I’m not very familiar with your work, because I’ve personally seen two of your shows, at the gallery in the Lower East side.  What was it called again?

Sari: “Watching the Wolfman Dance the Foxtrot”?

B: And the gallery?

S: Nicelle Beauchene.

B: And I saw some of your photographic/illustration work at Melanie Flood Projects, which I almost managed to forget about. 


S:
Oh, right right.

B: And I’ll probably see your show up at Momenta, so I’m doing pretty well actually.  I guess we should start off talking about your show at Momenta, and see where it takes us.  So, tell me a little bit about the show.  Give me a run down.

S: It’s a show they do once a year where they feature recent videos that they add to their library.  They do a series of two-week projects for each.

B: Oh, I think I went to that last year, maybe the year before.  I saw a video by the Canadian artist Brenden Fernandes.  He did a piece involving speech.

S: Sounds good.  I’m going to show this video I did a couple years back.  It’s called “Cast & Bridge” and it’s basically this kind of tour through an abandoned, decrepit falling apart house.  It’s basically structured on the logic of a slideshow.  Part journalism, part dream sequence.  Then there’s a soundtrack that is very pervasive, this nature creeping back into the visuals, as well as the sound.  Nature creeping back into a model modern house.  There are also elements of collage in it.

B: Similar to some of your previous video work?

S: Yeah, in the feel and this logic of collage, really layering different kinds of images that don’t necessarily start as relatives, but giving them a specific relationship through the piece.  Giving them a specificity by bringing them together, whereas some of the stuff could have been arbitrary selection or randomly put together.  What I’m even more excited about, which is what I’m working on right now, is this performance we’re doing there on Sunday.  The video has footage from Berlin and I’m layering on top of that, animation and collage.  It’s going to be shown with my friend Sergei, who is a composer and musician, and he is going to play live music to the video.  It kind of goes back to the early days of film, where they were silent with a live accompaniment of music, I guess usually a piano or something like that.  It would give such a different experience of film or a room, the audience in relation to the visuals, in relation to the sound.  I think something really interesting will happen in the room because it spins this whole relationship around.  Sometimes the music will take precedence, sometimes the visuals will.

B: Moving back and forth.  Is it improvised or did he compose a score?

S: We’re doing some sessions together, but a lot of it is improvisation.  He works with a synthesizer, and old synthesizer I think it’s from the 70s or 80s, a machine with some street cred.  And we have a general idea of what we’ll do, but a fair amount of it will be improvised.

B: Cool.  You said it’s a four-person show?  Who else is part of it?

S: Jessica Ann Peavy, Miriam Ghani & Erin Ellen Kelly, and Eve Sussman.  Each work is shown separately for two weeks.   It’s almost like a four-part mini one-person shows.

B: Gotcha.  Sound seems to be an important part to your videos, especially after just viewing “Olive Glove” here at your studio.  What role would you say sound plays in your videos?

S: It’s immense.  I’m super-interested in the way sound affects visuals and visuals affect sounds.  How they influence the meaning of one another.  Like how I spoke earlier of how images rub together each other and influence the determination of each other's meaning.  I really like the idea of translating one medium into another and all the mistakes that come from the process.  The mutations that they go through in the act of translation.

B: How do you create the soundtracks of your videos?

S: I treat it almost as a painting.  I pull most of the stuff off the internet.  The basic units.  Then I just work intuitively, like shuffling a paintbrush, moving them around until it makes sense.  Building this layered soundtrack.  When I was in Australia, doing a residency, I was in the middle of the bush, this amazing place.  The birds there sing very differently than anywhere else.  A totally different repertory of sounds.

B: I went to Australia somewhat recently.  So, I know what you mean.

S: I would spend hours listening to this whole other set of sounds.  The soundtrack for “Olive Glove” had a lot of Australian birds in it.  I also did an outdoor sculpture at Socrates Sculpture Park and it had a very naturalist soundtrack, made of electronic and vernacular sounds like trucks idling.  But it was based on these magpie birds, which have this really digital sounding bird twerp.

B: It also reminded me of something you hear at a zoo.  Like you go for a walk through the woods and they have these speakers hidden with soundtracks.

S: That’s also very interesting, the synthesizing of the natural into something that is really meticulously fabricated.  The video you saw at Nicelle’s gallery is basically all shot at the Bronx Zoo, where you have all of these fabricated environments.

B: The attempt to replicate a natural habitat.

S: A natural remote and pristine environment, so that falls exactly in the territory that I am interested in looking at from different angles.

B: The natural vs the artificial?

S: Not so much a binary relationship, but more how they fantasize about each other, how they are different sides of a similar fantasy, like in “Olive Glove,” where there are projections of the natural image, projections of the designed image.  The video is a series of vignettes, little theater sets that mesh together images and projections of the "natural" and the "designed".  I think they fall into a way of desiring something far away and different. 

B: A utopian point within them?

S: These images are the images of desire for something very complete, separate from what these objects do day to day.  Separate from what it is to go to a place like that.  What else?  A lot of my interest in sound is in the natural, immediate representations of these far away places that are slowly disappearing.

B: And at the same time, they are all digital recordings, a digitizing of natural sounds, so I guess that fits in with the grand scheme of things.  In your other work you have a lot of layering as well, drawing on top of photographs and things of that nature.  For example, the work at Melanie Flood Projects.  Did you start working in photography or illustration and move into video?

S: Yeah, I used to do straight up painting, but was always interested rubbing two or more things together.  These mongrel situations.  Once I started working with video, it fit much, much better, but I still brought a sensibility that is very much of painting, out of the studio.  This way the materiality of the medium, along with the sound, treating them as a painting with a spatiality to it.

B: I was just noticing these very frightening drawings of clowns on your wall.  What’s up with clowns?

S: Yes.  I like them because they are very unalluring images.  A very low level of seduction.  So, it’s a matter of using the images on the margins, the images no one else wants.

B: But they are these sad clowns.  The men behind the clowns.  Are you afraid of clowns?

S: No, I mean the relationship to the image isn’t so much personal.

B: My roommate is terrified of clowns.  I’ve never had a problem with them, but I’ve never had to face one.

S: And then you have all these horror stories where a clown plays a role.

B: I take that back.  The Stephen King movie It.  It’s about this clown that lives in a sewer and eats little kids.

S: Like an alligator.

B: Yeah.  They would show it once a year, and somehow I would always see it and end up watching, but not wanting to watch it then have nightmares for a month.  Anyway, sidetracked.  When is your rotation in the exhibition?

S: January 21 through February 1.

B: How did you get involved with Momenta?

S: I was in a show there some years back, and I guess we reconnected.

B: Momenta is one of those Williamsburg institutions.  Do you have any take on the Williamsburg art scene in general?

S: I don’t know that many artists that work in Williamsburg anymore.  I think that they all moved to Bed-Stuy.

B: The mass exodus.

S: Definitely not new people there.  But when it got pricey, people moved out.

B: Is this considered Clinton Hill still or what?

S: It’s kind of a no man’s land.

B: A liminal area.  The Navy Yards.  Don’t know what that is.  Whenever I bike by, it seems super-secure.  But this is definitely not a place you would just stroll by for any reason, on a Sunday walk.

S: Once in a while there’s the odd tourist, who is very lost.

B: You’ve been here for a while?

S: 3 years.

B: There really isn’t much of a presence otherwise, commercial or places to show.  Melanie’s was in her apartment.

S: I don’t know if galleries would move here, but it’s hard to get here.

B: You had a project in zingmagazine, issue #21.  Can you give me your take on it?  From what I recall, it was animals missing body parts, paintings?

S: Actually a lot of the images are images from a show I did.  And I did a layout for the magazine.  The show also had sculpture and I had this idea, which is kind of a mirror idea to what I said earlier of how do you take the sensibility of film, the way its structured, how narrative is structured, no necessarily a story, but narrative movement, and apply that to something that is spatial.  Like a room full of images and some objects.  So that was the motor behind the whole idea, and it made for an odd show.  But the images were kind of vignettes, flashes of this fictional film I had in the back of my head.  Some of them were reverberations of an act of violence.  Really direct—like here’s a rhinoceros with its horn chopped off and others that were more indirect, the atmosphere of the image.  It’s not like a strict connection, but more atmospheric and poetic and creates a group of images with a distinct feeling.

B: Seeing that this is the beginning of the new year, let’s do some summaries of 2009.  Do you have a favorite show of 2009?

S: Oh wow.  Those moments when you forget everything. [Laughs]

B: Whatever comes to mind.  This section is called “What comes to mind from 2009?”

S: There was a show at the Met, after Phillippe de Montebello retired as director.  It was in his honor called “The Phillippe de Montebello Years” and it had all kinds of objects that were added to his collection, throughout his term.  Sounds boring, right?  Whatever, some random collection of things.  Paying respect.  But you go in there, and it’s the most exciting show I’ve seen in a really long time.  Because the way they put it together, you have these objects from different centuries, different styles, different mediums, religions, contexts.  The curation was magnificent.  The way they put things next to each other to create the most beautiful, startling pairings.  It was so exciting.

B: As a product of the curation?

S: And just the power of the images themselves

B: What was in it?

S: They had an Egyptian male bust, a sculpture, a body beautifully crafted next to a Swiss wooden bust, this really ornate man with meticulous details.  They was these two things worked together, it was electrical.  You have a room full of 17th century drawings, or a room of Egyptian sculpture, they all look the same.  But mixed, it is the differences that make them stand out.  The objects all shined on their own.

B: I’m such a bum that I didn’t see it.

S: You could go to that Met and go from room to room, DJ in your mind.

B: Yeah, somebody should make a map of the Met, a curation tour for other people.  Did you have a favorite movie of 2009? Throw a little pop culture in the mix.  Doesn’t even have to be from 2009.

S: I saw this movie Koko: The Talking Gorilla, an old documentary with beautiful Technicolor and it’s about this gorilla that was taught sign language.  It was really interested but a bit tragic because it lived with humans and learned how to speak and it became a creature, a species of its own because it knew how to talk.  It had an awareness that probably other gorillas wouldn’t have.  Abstract ideas like love and anger and “I’m sorry” and they created this creature that at the end was something very lonely and tragic.

B: That sort of relates back to how you were describe your work.  How it’s like taking something that is natural and then, like with sign language you’re making a hand gesture that is a symbol.  A symbol for a sound, which is a word that relates to abstract thinking.  You’re giving an animal a symbolic order.  It is in some way artificial because symbols are not naturally occurring things.  There’s this disconnect once the animal crosses the threshold in a way similar to your work.

S: Right, it creates a hybrid third place, it becomes this mutation.

B: Sign language is artificial, created as a system of communication.  Like you’re presented designed objects into a natural landscape.  Not necessarily a direct connection, but the ideas are floating around.

S: They swim in the same pool.  This movie is from the 70s, and everyone is a hippie and it’s in California and it is about progress.  Yet there is something so inadvertently sad and hopeless about this project because this woman’s life is devoted to this gorilla and the gorilla was yanked out of her pack and moved into this other life.  It became kind of senseless at some point or hopeless.

B: It was helpless because people did everything for it?  Could it not go back to its pack?

S: I feel like it was a point of no return.

B: It took a bite out of the apple of knowledge.  It learned human systems.

S: It entered the kind of relationships that severed it from its original people.  I was reading the other day about monkeys and language and some guy interviewed a chimpanzee for a newspaper, like "What is your favorite movie of 2009?

B: I hope it didn’t say Avatar.

 

See Sari Carel’s film “Cast & Bridge” at Momenta Art, 359 Bedford Ave, through February 1.

 

 

INTERVIEW: Geraldine Postel

Fabuleuses Turbulences entitled #1, collection of Amanda Obering
 

Geraldine Postel at Galerie du Singe en Hiver, Villerville, Normandy, France
 

Devon Dikeou: You haven’t shown in 15 years. How did you get back to making work and how did this exhibition come about?
 
Geraldine Postel: I didn’t expect to do anything with these pictures, it just happened that I took them as I was struck by a storm, at a special moment of my life, where the elements matched my emotions: I was equally devastated and inspired by the sky roaming above me. I really felt a special connection with my surroundings and at that specific moment, the sky and I were in tune, in synchronized revolutions. It lasted three hours, and I was literary blown away by the spectacle above, the strength of the elements, the rain pouring, soaking me wet, the thunder bursting everywhere . . . I was alternatively amazed and afraid, time had stopped.
 
I took these pictures as I take many others on a daily basis, when I feel a personal relationship to what I see. I keep some of the photos for myself or to share with close friends, and I throw the rest away. The next day as I was still reveling from the spectacle the night before. I realized how specific this moment was. I could not erase any of it, nor could I erase from my memory what realizations I had personally or visually in the process.
 
When I made these pictures, it was a true moment of decision-making and awareness. It was time for me to make a new step and take charge of my destiny again. I was convinced the voice of the elements reinforced my energy towards this new direction, although I did not think for a second that this was going to lead to my first exhibition in 15 years. In fact, I was terrified when the gallerist, Serge Perkowsky, proposed an exhibition a few months later at Galerie du Singe en Hiver, but I could do nothing but accept the challenge.
 
DD: Talk about the historic relationship the Normandy locale plays in your work.
 
GP: Normandy is my small paradise two hours driving distance from Paris, which I have a personal relationship with; I have been running there for shelter to a small fisherman’s house I have there—to escape the rhythm of Paris for the past few years. It is located between the cities of Deauville and Honfleur, but my home is removed in a small village on a very quiet beach . . . World War II bunkers leave two sporadic concrete shadows, and everything else is raw nature.
 
I love Normandy for the light, and the peculiar landscape of the shores, the wide movements of high and low tides which transforms the landscape constantly. This area has also inspired many creative types for centuries—writers, musicians and artists including Flaubert, Marguerite Duras, Eric Satie, Eugene Boudin, Monet . . .

DD: Talk about your relationship to the following artists. Say as much or as little as you like. Turner.
 
GP: Well, Turner is truly an amazing painter to me, he has painted countless seascapes and situations where the skies are amazing, he also was often inspired by the struggle of mankind to face the strength of the elements and its inherent fatality, with philosophical and historical references. It seems that a sense of tragedy is also recurrent subject. I could have a connection with Turner, in the movement of the skies and the landscapes themes, but I’d rather associate with Emmanuel Kant’s “Aesthetic Judgement”: I admire the beauty of the sublime as opposed to suffer from it.
 
DD: Monet.
 
GP: If there is a way to reproduce the light, the wind and capture a sentimental perception of nature and time passing by, Monet is a master. Monet was also very much inspired by Turner for the way he painted the fog over the Thames, and he did a large series of paintings on this subject. I have to admit that I found myself referring directly to the specific series of Monet’s paintings of the London Parliament, in which we see a tower fading in the corner. It was painted at dawn, and the tower dissolves in the night. It is very dark and Monet captures the accurate light of a landscape after sunset. I saw this piece again recently, as it is part of the permanent collection at the Andre Malraux Museum. The Museum is in the harbor of Le Havre, located in Normandy, and I went back three times to see it again. Monet was born in Le Havre by the way, that’s also where he painted Impression Au Soleil Levant . . .
 
DD: Veja Celmins.
 
GP: The natural phenomena reproduced by Veja Celmins are very interesting. Often I sense that emotions are somehow removed from the images, it feels like she is quietly witnessing the waves of life.
 
DD: James Sheppard.
 
GP: I have read the review in zingmagazine, but am not familiar with the work.
 
DD: Vik Muniz.
 
GP: I love the way images are decomposed with all kinds of accessories breaking it into sorts of large pixels and “a plats”. There is a lot of strength emanating from Vik Muniz’s art. It’s beautiful.
 
DD: Giasco Bertoli.
 
GP: I really admire him as a photographer and artist. His landscapes and all his work around cinema strike me the most. Somehow there is an incredible quietness in the witnessing, a raw capture with a distance from feelings, a sort of mind game. He also did a large series on clouds, in color, which are very light, playful and, of course, this book, Clouds Don’t Care, but this book does not have anything to do with my work. Things happen for a reason . . . I can say that among the many reasons that lead me to do this series, he had a direct cause and effect on my work and my life, and what followed from that.
 
I was alone when I took these pictures—I had stepped away from home for a long weekend retreat in Normandy. Without the need of stepping away, I wouldn’t have seen the storm. Without the storm, I am not sure things would have evolved the way they did soon after. But without the storm, I wouldn’t be answering these questions.
 
DD: Tiepolo.
 
GP: For some reason I have a hard time with the religiously inspired decorative painting. Most of it is so beautifully executed, and full of life and lightness, but I really have a strange relationship with it. It’s probably because of my religious upbringing, I’ve had enough religiosity from Catholic School . . .
 
 
DD: Why the iPhone medium?
 
GP: It was the only thing I had at the time. I have a strange relationship with photography. Every time I have made pieces involving the photographic process, I used the process and mediums current to the time—disposal cameras and Xerox machines in the ‘90s, and an iPhone today. Since I am not a photographer, I like to use these popular everyman devices as a medium.
 
DD: Why the necessity to make them into objects?
 
GP: The iPhone is too small of a format to show more than one person at a time. The enlarged format as it hangs in the gallery is beautiful as it is now. It is digitally printed on glossy paper, mounted on aluminum and covered with a Plexiglas. The enlarged pixels have a strong effect—it is almost Pointillistic. I wanted to make it into high gloss photographic wall piece, where the pieces show that they are neither a painting nor a photograph: they integrate codes from both.
 
DD: They recently discovered a new kind of cloud in Iowa and elsewhere and it was just someone taking pictures of the sky, somewhere near a tornado. I think the cloud form is called asperatus. Tell me your feeling seeing these kinds of clouds.
 
GP: I had to look it up on the web, I had no idea what asperatus were . . . But yes I think I have seen this kind of cloud, I continue to be impressed everyday by clouds and light . . . I am not a cloud expert, but find myself attracted to the cloud watch associations and all related websites, in fact the NASA website pictures are some of my favorites—that’s how much I like to look at the sky . . .
 
DD: Were your shots from this series just a one-time explosion of picture making or edited from a long ongoing series.
 
GP: All images were edited from a larger series, but they were all made during the same storm, on the very same beach. It’s also where I happened to have the exhibition. It all happened in Normandy.
 
DD: Do you try to see things in clouds, like children see a bunny?
 
GP: All the time, I see things in clouds, on buildings, in water, in shadows, in architecture, I see things everywhere as soon as I let my imagination go . . .
 
DD: Where do you see your work going?
 
GP: I have no idea . . . I have taken many more pictures since. Some of them I’d be ashamed to show . . . They were taken in a psychiatric hospital where I experienced a small journey after the storm in the Summer . . . And more clouds . . . But I also like to write . . . So I drift around and embrace the things that happen as they come . . . Let’s see where it leads to . . . I am a cloud . . .
 
 

INTERVIEW: Erica Allen

 

 

Recently closed solo exhibit, “Untitled Gentlemen”, at Melanie Flood Projects featured photographs by artist Erica Allen.  Allen, originally from Oakland, California, is now based in Brooklyn.  She received a BA in Studio Art from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2003 and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in 2008.  The work in “Untitled Gentlemen” consists of photographs parsed from various found sources, including barbershop photos, studio portraits, and historical images.  These fictional photographic portraits explore construction of identity and open new meaning in otherwise one-dimensional single-purpose photographs.

 

Brandon Johnson: Tell me a little bit about the show in particular.  Is this its own body of work of is it from a larger series?  How is it organized in relation to the rest of your work?

Erica Allen: This is its own body of work.  There are basically two series.  The first series is a black and white series that uses historical images for the bodies and barbershop posters for the heads.  The second series is using all found color vernacular photographs and studio portraits.  I’ve been working on it for about three years and am still adding to it, but it really differs from the rest of my work.  I’ve never used people before or found photos.

B: So these are primarily found photos?

E: They’re all found photos.  Yes.

B: Did you do research to find them?  Were they in archives or something looser than that?

E: They are all found randomly on an individual basis, from estate sales, thrift stores, vintage shops.  Each piece is unique.  I re-photographed the heads in some of the black and whites from weathered posters that were actually hanging in barbershops, which is why I kept some of the weathering and paired them with historical images that had similar aged effects.  But the colors I actually found the posters and scanned them in, just like I scanned the found photographs.

B: Where did you find them?  Were they all in New York or various locations?

E: Yes, all in New York.  Over the last three years.

B: In Brooklyn specifically or did you find them everywhere?

E: I found them everywhere.  I started in the city, because I was living there.  But when I discovered the posters, I went to barbershops all over Brooklyn and anywhere I could find them.

Melanie Flood: Did you see the barbershop posters pre-New York?  Because you’re from California.  I’ve only seen them in New York.

E: I’ve only seen them in New York.  I was doing street photography and I caught a corner of one of a guy with this big pompadour who looked like he was about to cry.  I thought it was so weird.  Then I started seeing them everywhere.

B: Where was that at exactly?

E: It was at 1st Ave and 20th St, I guess?  And I lived a couple blocks away.

B: Where’d you get the idea to start documenting them?  Did you just start collecting them or seeking them out?

E: It was just out of curiosity.  I thought they were really remarkable.  They all shared a very weird expression on their faces.

B: Yeah, there’s definitely a distinct look to them.  No one is really smiling.

M: Were you only interested in barbershop pictures?  There are also salons with more guido types of hair styles like the pompadour.  Are you more interested in these types of haircuts?  Or is it just about the face?

E: The haircut wasn’t important.  When I started getting the actually posters from this cutlery supply store in Jamaica, there’s all kinds of crazy hairstyles, but I wanted people to see the face, the individual.  I felt like it was such a balance to put them together--matching the backgrounds to the bodies, because I don’t want people to be distracted by what they’re wearing or the hairstyle, I really wanted to give the attention to these guys who have had their identity stripped.  Giving that back to them.  Even though you still don’t know who they are.

B: Right.  Whereas the original purpose is to showcase the haircut.

E: Yeah, and you’re not supposed to care about who they are at all.

B: So the focal point is changing from the style to the individual.

E: And to put it in a frame we really recognize as privileging the individual subject.  So people would automatically recognize it was a portrait of someone and that they were supposed to care who it is.  You have no idea, because there are so few clues.  You have to think about what you are projecting, who you think this person could be.

B: There’s an anonymity and at the same time alluring mystery as to who these people are.  That’s what first struck me when I saw these photographs, I was thinking “Who ARE these people? Where are they coming from?  Where do they live?”  Because when you first see them, they strike you as bizarre.

M: They all have such a blank look on their faces.

B: Expressionless.

M: Empty, soulless individuals.

B: The guy in the red seems to be subtly displaying the side of his head to show the particular cut of the crew cut that he has going on.

M: Yeah, it’s cool.

B: How did you two meet?

M: I first saw Erica’s work during this Daniel Cooney auction online.  Do you know Daniel?  He has this gallery in Chelsea.  He shows photography and he does these emerging artist auctions.  Erica’s rainbow guy, titled #14, was in the auction, and I was going to bid but couldn’t figure it out.  Then I forgot about it and when I went back I couldn’t find it.  So I got irritated, and emailed Daniel directly to ask about the picture.  I ended up just emailing Erica directly about it, asking if I could see it.  I didn’t buy it, but only because I don’t have any extra money.  Then I ended up showing you my photographs, which was weird.

E: Because I asked.

M: Totally bonkers, but I was like okay, if you want.  So, that’s how we met.

B: Then you were like “Hey, guess what?  I kinda run this gallery out of my apartment…”

M: I thought it would be a fun show to do, especially because it’s in Brooklyn, and I live in a great multi-cultural neighborhood [Clinton Hill/Fort Green] where there are so many barbershops.  It fits very well.  There’s also the selfish aspect where I get to look at the pictures for a long time and have them be mine for a month.  I also liked Erica’s personality.  I thought we could be friends or whatever, so I thought it would be cool to do a show and voila.

B: I haven’t seen any of your other work, Erica.  What else do you do?  Is it mainly photography?

E: For the last ten years I’ve done photography.  Before that I did a lot of painting and drawing.  I would photograph found textures and urban landscapes and things like that.  But as soon as I came to New York, it was so saturated with imagery.

B: When was that?

E: I came here three years ago now.  I went to graduate school at SVA.

B: You came from California?

E: Yes, from the San Francisco Bay area.  I started working with found photos as soon as I got here.  And I had been collecting them for years, but never thought about using them in my own work but when I came here, photographing around the city, it was impossible to take a photo without other photographs in it.  So, I started looking more at the images that surround us—what we pay attention to and what we ignore.  That intrigued me, even more than going out and taking straight photographs.

B:  As you said before, there’s a vernacular.  A New York vernacular in how the images are presented.  There’s a certain subculture in which these images exist, in the barbershops.  A New York phenomenon, especially.  There are similar trends.  There are the bodegas with the great names.  Once you start noticing something, it’s everywhere.

M: To return to the photos, the bodies are from found photos and you put the heads on.  What about the backgrounds?  Are they from the body photos and you just put the heads on?

B: Will you explain the construction process?  These images are compiled from multiple sources, correct?

E:  I’ll go and find school portraits, you get a hundred or so from a thrift store, and I’ll like a sweater or something.  I’ll find another one with a rainbow in the background.  Then I’ll find a face.  It ends up being seamless but also weird enough to not look quite right.  So, sometimes it’s two images and sometimes it’s three.

B: And it’s all done digitally?

E: Yeah.

M: Were you working on these while in SVA?  What was that like?  What was the reception among your peers? I’m curious.

E: I did the first black and white series and I was just re-photographing the faces and I kept showing the faces and everyone didn’t get it, they thought they were mug shots, a bunch of sad men.  It wasn’t until I put the faces in the context of the studio portraits with a body that people realized there was something else going on.  They recognized that it was a person, even if we don’t know who it is.  But I abandoned the project for a little while.  I think some people enjoyed it.  Others just didn’t get it.

M: It’s especially difficult with found photos, with appropriation and ownership.  It opens up a whole conversation that can get really annoying, especially in an academic atmosphere.

B: “So, what does it mean to use a found photos…”

M: Exactly.  What other artists influence you or do you look at?  It can be films or other mediums.

E: I’m totally not going to say the names right.

M: That’s fine.

B: Don’t worry, it won’t come through in print.

E: There’s an artist named Johan Schmid . He works with found photos.  John Steegetzer .  They’re both guys that work with creating archives of found photos or layering photos on top of each other.  I’ve looked at them, but didn’t know their work before I started working on this series.  Also Eric Kessels .

B: There was this interesting outlet at the NY Art Book Fair the other year called Specific Things I believe who have a website and a print publication archiving found photographs in certain categories like “guys with glasses eating sushi” and whatever other categories.  I thought that was an interesting project.

M: What do you think it is about found or old photos, like polaroids, that make people want to look at them.  Do you think because there is no ownership?  Because they’re anonymous people.  It has an old feeling, warm and fuzzy.

B: Nostalgia?

M: I like looking at my own old photos, but not necessarily other found photography unless it’s categorized in a certain way because there just seems to be so much.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed.  Spade and Partners on Bond Street make these books.  Like one will be called “Bikini,” and you open it up and it will be polaroids of girls in bikinis.  Another would be “Shorts,” and it’s guys on the beach with shorts on.  They’re nicely curated and organized.  It makes it easier to look at.  There are more people working with found photos these days.

E: Yeah, definitely.  It’s becoming more popular.  I don’t know what it is.  Maybe it’s projection.  People project their own experience or own visual identification with images.  I know when I’m collecting found photos I’m looking for something that seems out of the ordinary.  It reveals something that it’s not supposed to.  Like the picture is failing in some way.  It’s an amazing picture but it wasn’t meant to be taken.  Like the person taking it was such an amateur, not that it’s a happy accident in the decisive moment, but it shows something that they never could have anticipated.  Like an expression or someone in the background.   More than the photographer or subject was anticipating.

M: I’m wondering where these poses [in the barbershop portraits] come from?

B: Right, like who’s art directing this? 

M: What are the rules?  Because they all have such a similar feeling, in terms of the faces. 

B: They all seem to have there chin nodding downwards to display the tops of their heads.  The hair is in the center of the photograph.  There must be some kind of science behind it.  There must be some unknown great barbershop photographer out there somewhere.  A master. 

E: There are different posters with different faces.  This is definitely a conscious edit.  Generally, they were probably told not to project.  What you really see is this lack of projection.  What you see is this kind of interior moment.  Maybe we’re actually seeing them, rather than what they want us to see.

M: It’s funny how we think this is so important.  The dissection of photography.  Why do we think it’s so important to dissect it like this?  When I saw these photos, I just looked at them and thought “I just like these.”  Not to take away from you as an artist, but it was enough for me to like them in that way.  Whereas some photos you have to stand in front of and try to figure them out, like the MOMA show that’s up right now with the young photographers.  Those require so much deconstruction.  Whereas these, it’s so obvious, the meaning.  it’s sort of intrinsic to the photograph.  It came so naturally, which is in part what I think makes these photos good.

B: They have a mystery, but they’re not being aggressively difficult.

M: Exactly, there’s a lot of heavily conceptual photography that requires you to work hard at them.  Why can’t they be immediately aesthetically appealing?

E: I think accessibility is important.  You really limit your audience when you start getting uber-conceptual.  I think using found photos nods to the democracy of photography.

B: Right, it’s not necessarily a part of popular culture, but more like everyday culture.

E: Things we’re familiar with.

B: So, was it a conscious effort on your part to choose guys that were posing in that way?

E:  I can’t say that it wasn’t conscious on some level, but I don’t think in making them that I was only looking for faces that were only looking down or in a certain direction.  But I definitely think that there is an inherent and unavoidable emotional quality to the expressions.  It’s not something you can avoid.

B: They seem forlorn.

E: I’ll leave the interpretation up to the viewer.  I did my own editing in constructing them, though.

B: Anything coming up that should be everybody’s radar?

E: I have a piece in the upcoming Center for Fine Art Photography “New Visions” show.

W: Where’s that?

E: Colorado.  Also, Still Life, curated by Jon Feinstein, which is currently up at Camera Club of New York until December 19th, 336 West 37th St, Suite 206.. I'm working on new website for found photos to go along with my current website, www.ericaallenphotography.com.

B: And Melanie, you’re going to Miami?

M: Yes, and we’re doing a show of Jason Polan’s work.  It’s two books of drawings he’s done over the past couple of months during road trips in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine.  I’m also doing Conversations with Melanie Flood, a monthly interview series printed on broadsheet.  Still working out the details on that.  I think I’ll be interviewing Anna and Tess Knoebel from Abe’s Penny, Jason, Polan, Philip Toledano, Erica, and others.  So, that and 48,000 other things.

INTERVIEW: Mike Ballou

 

 

On Monday, October 26 a giant cow head appeared atop Diner, a restaurant at the intersection of Broadway and Berry in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Moo-Moo the Giant Cow Head is a large sculptural portrait by artist Mike Ballou of one of the grass-fed upstate New York cows that are used in Diner’s dishes.  I met up with Mike and German artist Hans Winkler (see ZING #15) at Diner to discuss this absurdity.


Brandon Johnson: We’ll just talk about that big cow head on top of Diner and see where it take us.  So, why’s it there?

Mike Ballou: I became interested in Diner as a social venue.  A lot of it was function and I wanted to do something that played with their sensibility.  So, I went to the farm where they get some of their livestock and took pictures.

B: Did you know the guy who owns Diner?

M: Yeah, actually, I met Andrew [Tarlow] 8 years ago?  It was this hysterical trip to Stockholm and we had this insane layover.  I mean we were laid over for 14 hours and I had been traveling so much that year that I said “I’m not staying inside this fuckin’ airport.  Anybody wanna come with me?  I’m going outside.”  It was May or early June in Stockholm, so it was light forever.  Andrew and I ended up in the middle of this traffic median and there was this grassy patch with dandelions and we ended up making flower leis for one another.  I kept talking in this pirate voice, saying, “Argg, you’ve been ruining the neighborhood, turning all yuppyfied, haven’t ya?  Serving all your fancy food with pretty girls.  Think you’re fancy do ya?”

B: So, you’re sitting in the middle of this traffic median in Stockholm, calling him out on gentrifying Williamsburg?

M:  No, you know, he’s been around for a while.  It’s sort of like, when I work in the studio I work until 11 or 12, and when I’m done I want to have a drink, a couple beers before I got out on the streets.  I just want to be around people.  So, I got to know the people.  Diner used to be this big project, you know, they do magazines, they do courses and stuff, so it’s not just about serving food and making a nice place to eat.  And when they made the switch to grass-fed, having this relationship with this farmer, I got really intrigued by it.  One night I said “I’d really like to make a giant portrait of one of your cows.”  So I made this cow, and it has this audio component, which is just, doesn’t really have anything to do with the cow, it just simply occupies the same space.

B: Uh-huh.

M: So, underneath there are these two little soundgardens and there’s this rendering of what you’re eating there on top.  It’s going to be like an apparition—it’ll only be there for another couple of days, and then it’s going to disappear.  Then I think we’ll probably make it re-appear in a different position, as a different function.  It may become a source for an image projection.  It’s been really well received so far.  It worked out really well.  I didn’t want to do an opening.  I just wanted this thing to appear…

B: Just be there.

M:  If we had a proper opening, it would have totally screwed up the way that Diner socially functions, and I didn’t want to interfere that much.

B: So, to clarify, that is specifically one cow that you saw at the farm upstate.  I noticed there was a tag on the ear with a number…

M: Yeah, exactly.  Actually the tag number is my own self-reference.  I mean, they do have tags like that, but the number itself is a reference to the old place I used to live in here.

B: What’s it made of?

M: It’s made out of blue foam, then plaster, aqua resin, and then paint.  All the material was donated and it was a complete freebie, the project.

B: Nice.

M: But, you know, a significant amount of money.

B: So, if you could restate the story about how you got it up on Diner’s roof.  It’s a pretty gigantic sculpture.

M: Well, it’s like most of my projects.  I’d be like “Oh, that would be a great idea, no problem!” Like when we put the weathervane on top of Mussolini’s bunker.  It was like “That shouldn’t be a problem!”  I got this great story.  Hans [Winkler] got me involved in the Brenner Pass.

Hans Winkler: In Italy.

M: I put a Pinocchio weathervane on top of one of Mussolini’s bunkers. There’s a great Super 8 I took of it.  At one point Hans had to carry the Pinocchio weathervane up, but he looks like Jesus.

H: It’s great because it’s such a symbol.   This is right on the border of Italy and Austria.  You come out this big tunnel from under the pass and you see this weathervane. Pinocchio is a symbol for lying.  Everybody in the area thinks you did it because of Mussolini.

M: Well, that’s not exactly why I did it.  But that’s the interesting thing, that even though you’re the author, once you go out, you’re the audience.

H: Exactly.  Because a lot of what you’re doing has to do with social sculpture.  You’re not just putting out one image and having to say what it is.  It integrates in society.  It’s more of an intervention.

M: Yeah, they do become that way.  And even though I work with galleries and do lots of stuff with them, it’s just been so much about itself the past 8 years.  The art world, the gallery art world, is becoming so irrelevant to anything outside of itself.  I really prefer doing projects.

B: The gallery world is insular?

M: Well, it’s really market driven.  And you could feel that change 10 years ago.  The YBAs came up, the ascent of Chelsea.  The whole gearing of everything toward a museum, which is much different than just living and having art work for you.  I mean it’s great to have those kinds of super-rarified pristine spaces, but I just don’t think that’s the only thing.  But the other thing is I don’t think you and I could do the kind of work that we do without that component.  What do you think?  Would you agree?

[Silence]

M: For the official record, Hans Winkler was nodding.  Nodding in the affirmative.

B: In brackets, “Hans Winkler nods pensively.”

M: In a German way.

B: A Germanic nod.

H: In some ways, it’s true.  Like you say, in one way you don’t want to be in the social context, in the political context, but…

M: You can’t help it.

H: But the pieces are finding their way.  People have to finish the stories.  For example, Berlusconi.  Everybody knows he’s a liar, and idiot.  Now there’s a symbol when you’re crossing the border.  There’s Pinocchio.  Everybody says, “Oh, it’s our president, our gangster”.

M: I got the idea in ’97, when I was in Tuscany, from the Tuscan landscape.  I had never seen a landscape like that where it was once primeval, then somebody settled it, somebody took that over, then these people came in…it just has an effect of sedimentation.  In Italy, there was this weird kind of juncture between nature and human nature that I was feeling.  I was thinking, nature is this kind of take it or leave it proposition.  It doesn’t really give a fuck.  And human nature DOES give a fuck.  It tells stories, etc.  When I was looking at the Pinocchio thing, I thought that this was the ultimate human thing: the ability to lie.  So, I thought if you put that on a weather vane, you get this juncture between nature and human nature.

H: It’s interesting, because art has a lot to do with fiction…

B: Artifice.

H: Yes, but also reality.  But reality and fiction are always very similar.  But I think, like in writing, it’s not always the point to be literal, it’s also about…

B: To craft a reality…

H: Yes, and a free interpretation.

M:  Don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth.

[Everybody laughs]

H: But it is what it is.  If you look at this piece at Diner and say, “Oh, it’s saying don’t eat meat” and blah, blah, blah.  It’s a different story.

B: I don’t think everyone would necessarily read it like that, because what Diner is trying to do with the grass-fed beef is the antithesis of factory farming and detachment from food.  So it’s, in a way, bringing the person closer to the animal they’re eating.  It gives a face to the food…

M: Or a head.

B: Right, or a head.

H: A couple years ago, comparing America to Europe, the U.S. was far behind in the green movement.  And now, it’s crazy here.  I heard in an interview about pets, that people now treat dogs like a partner rather than something to kick aside like they would in the past.  Now here, you see a cow smiling on a restaurant.  I like meat, don’t get me wrong.  But to respect it.  When I was younger, I went to a farm in Bavaria, and they slaughtered animals.  We had a big celebration and used everything.

B: That was the first time you ate meat?

H: No, but I had the feeling it was the first time, because before it would just be meat.   Meanwhile, you see meat in plastic and it’s so far away from reality.  The cow on diner has personality.  It’s not an advertisement, but rather something for people to consider.

M: I think that’s how projects can get interesting.  When the audience starts making their story and making it their own.

B: Like people are walking into Diner, they see this giant sculpture, and include it in the conversation over a drink or meal.  Put in their two cents and make it a part of their day.

M: Yeah, I think that’s a good function of poetry and art.

B: Conversation, dialogue?

M: Dialogue, for me, implies a certain amount of pragmatism.  Whereas this is quite absurd.

H: It was great while installing, to be on the roof and see the reactions of the people passing by.  For example, one conservative Jewish man was rushing around, but when he saw cow, he stopped and stared for a while.  It’s nice that it creates a situation like that.

B: For the record, let’s go over the installation process, which we had spoken about earlier.

M: Right, like I said earlier, it was like “Oh, this will be fun.”  And then you get in the middle of and you say to yourself “What was I thinking?”  Anyway, there was about 4-5 people on the ground and Hans and I have got it lashed and scooted up on the ladder.  It actually isn’t that heavy.  I would say it’s about 200 lbs.  So, we’re pulling it, just at the edge but can’t quite get it, so we lower it back down.  Then there was this crew doing roadwork with a backhoe, and the foreman, a Polish guy, comes up and says “I’ll get that up for you.”  So he brings the backhoe.  I’m looking at the backhoe, thinking, there’s no way this is going to reach.  Then the guy takes the truck and pushes the bucket into the ground and pushes the whole thing up about five feet.

B: Wow.

M:  We’re sitting there like “Coooool.  That’s manly.”  So, that starts the ascent of the cow head.  And that’s when everybody starts gathering around, taking out their phones.  This thing starts ascending like a saint.  Then it lands and everybody cheers.

B: Great.

M:  The project has a really good vibe to it.  Everybody’s picking up what they can and running with it a little bit.  We’re trying to collect as much of the imagery that people are taking as we can and letting that be the documentation for it.  Actually, I’m following that bear project that you and Stefan did, Hans.  Because that was all documented in a similar way.

H: That was a long time ago, but it has a story.  I was in the States, in Barrow, Alaska for a project.  I was in Alaska and we came across Polar Bears and Grizzlies. In Germany, the last bear was killed 100 years ago.  I came back to Germany and said, “I have rent a costume.”  So we put on the bear costumes, and were living and moving like bears in the mountains.  People took pictures and eventually the European media got hold of it and said “Bears are back.”

B: When did you do this?

H: 1993.

B:  Wasn’t there a bear in Germany recently?

H: Yes, and then ten years later there was a real bear.

B: Was his name Bruno?

H: Bruno.  He came to Germany, and the first thing the media did was call me.

[Everybody laughs]

M: Really?  That was interesting because you let the tourists and people who saw you act as the documentation.

H: It was a limited sculpture.  Like the cow, I think it would be a mistake to keep it up forever.

M: Exactly.  If you keep things around too long, they become less important.  You have to animate them by making them disappear and re-appear.  Then it becomes an active thing.  Or it seems to.  It’s funny, because sometimes pieces that remain for long periods of time are continually rediscovered.  One generation will come across it and then forget about.  Then the next generation goes the same way.

H: But do you call it an object, an installation?

M:  I just call them projects.

B: Is it titled?

M: It’s REALLY stupid.  “Moo-Moo the Giant Cow Head”.  I couldn’t be more sternical, like “138 Bovine”.  You know, it really doesn’t have a title.

H: I’m also confronted with names.  Is it an object, installation, intervention?  Then the media calls it something else.

B: No need to pigeonhole it.

M: Then there are art schools with things like “installation studies.”  Objects don’t exist the way the moving image exists.  The moving image, whether it’s 3 seconds, 3 minutes, or 3 hours, you never get that back.  Whereas objects, like photos, paintings, sculptures, you enter and leave at will.  They don’t exist in that same sort of way as the moving image does.  You remember the catalogue thing did for ZING?

B: Yeah, the “Pane” project, which was part of issue #21.

M: I liked that, because it hovered between those two ways of apprehending film and an object.  As you were moving through the catalogue, the stills were sequential.  You would kind of pick it up a little bit, but then put it away for later.  You could also leave the stills and look at the contents of the catalogue.  By the way, I was thrilled that you guys put that out.  I love that project.

B: It’s nice, because it’s a unique project.

H: What was it?

M: I had that show in England and people were like [with British accent] “You do a lot of important stuff, you should have a catalogue about yourself.”  And I was like, “Who’s going to buy it?  Who’s going to pay for it?  I can’t.”

H: The government.

M: Okay, let’s start a revolution so I can get a catalogue.

B: There’s your running platform.

M: Right, “a chicken in every pot and a catalogue with every show.”  So, I started to do a bunch of projects and they would kind of weave in this way, but it was just turning into mud real quick.  So, I got the idea to start with something simple. I thought, “Maybe I’ll design some catalogues.  They’re simple.”  They sure are.  You end up with sequential stills, a title, nice graphics, blah, blah, blah.  So, I was getting really disgusted and put it back.  Meanwhile, I was getting catalogues in the mail.  Christmas, tools, clothing, whatever.  And I thought, “Gosh, my films are kind of like these catalogues.  Somehow received.”  So, I decided to take a catalogue, devote that to one film, put them in sequential order.  Just intervene by taking part of the picture space in each spread.  Don’t change the content, don’t make any comments.  And it worked.

B: Yeah, it did.  That film you used for the ZING project was a bird trapped in an air vent?

M: No, actually it was a mockingbird that flew into my studio, so it’s flying against my window.  It’s a really nice film because when it’s being screened, there’s this really nice pressure you get from the light going against the wall and the absence of light from the bird flopping against the window.  For the catalogue, I liked the indifference of both images [the film stills and the Harry and David catalogue].  They’re just neighbors.  I’ve laid out about five of them, and plans for many, many, many more.  Projects should be poetic in a way.  It really is about content.  When you take these project positions, you’re using material to get something across.  To activate some kind of content.

H: What do you mean?

M: Some people would take this conceptual position and just set up these parameters on how to work.  But the work needs to resonate beyond its parameters.

H: It depends on the project.

M: It’s like the bear piece.  You weren’t interested in being a bear.  What you were doing was try to activate something about the myth of the bear in Germany.

H: There were different levels.

M: And that’s when it has a certain kind of resonance.  But often enough you see people just kind of make these formal gestures and they just don’t work.  You know…

M: It’s like every generation thinks it invented sex.  And in a way, they’re right.  Every generation, all the kids were taught how babies are made.  Then you learn from your friends, you do this and you do this.  But when it actually comes to doing it, when you first have a sweetheart, you ARE inventing it, each one of us.  But it’s been around before we were humans.

B: It, in fact, MADE us humans.

M: Right.  But every generation does invent sex.

B: That’s going to be the tagline of this interview.

M: I’ve seen tons and tons of moving image, lots of porn, and the interesting thing is when they first invented the camera, one of the first things they shot were sex acts.   And they were all like, you know, people doing it with dogs, fisting, none of this stuff is new.  It’s all been done before.  You know, whatever you can twist around in your little noodle up there, it’s been done.

B: What can you do that hasn’t been done better before?

M: Exactly.  One of these projects I did was in this Imbiss in Berlin.  Do you know what Imbiss is?

B: No.

M: I-m-b-i-s-s.  They’re like these ubiquitous snack stands.  They would serve currywurst and pomme-frites and stuff.  They’re all over the place in Berlin.  So, anyway, this guy let’s us use this thing to do a project in.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I definitely didn’t want to do like an art invasion.  You know, vacant space, fill it with objects.  So I was trying to let the content of the space come out, so I started cleaning the place.  So there was the Imbiss kitchen here, where they would serve food.  And there were two restrooms, the men’s and the women’s.  The women room was particularly filthy.  I mean it was literally knee-deep in like condoms and needles, just crap.  Literally.  It was horrible.  We spent about four days literally shoveling and hosing it down.

B: Ughh.

M: So, I went to the men’s room to start cleaning the stalls with water and a sponge.  And I thought “That’s weird.  Why is it getting all foamy?”  Then I see all these gloryholes around.  I’m like “JESUS!”  That’s when I learned how to say the German phrase for “May I have some great big rubber working gloves?”  That was a little place where men had some fun.  Remember the graffiti all over it?  One said “Black American, please come back.”

B: So, what ended up going in there?  I mean the cleaning is a project in itself, but…

M: I started looking at the graffiti, and seeing how graffiti is always the atmosphere going over architecture.  So I decided to wake that up by doing a video of the graffiti.  Remember that one story of the woman from Berlin who wanted to sell herself and her children for sex to a man and/or woman?  Remember that, Hans?  And she left her phone number…

H: No…

M: I would just run the camera over it and then pull it back and it became these word pictures on the screens.

H: But here, the restrooms are clean.

B: You mean in New York or this bar?

H: In general.

B: I would have to disagree.  But it’s mostly tags.

M: And in Berlin it was messages and stories.  We displayed the videos on the Imbiss, and people would come off the Ubaun, and sit for an hour just reading these word pictures.  I loved it.  There were certain points that just jelled on that project.

B: When was this?

M: 1999 or 2000.  But last time I was in Berlin, the Imbiss is back to what it used to be.  We polished the gutters and everything, woke it up, but now it’s returned to its former state.

B: Squalor?

M: Yeah.  I think sometimes you don’t want to intrude too much.  You just want to wake things up.  I mean for gosh sake, there are enough objects in the world.  Sometimes I think just waking them up and lighting them is all you need.  What is really depressing is going to some of the super blue chip collector and their houses are like mausoleums.  It’s a shame, because all that Modern stuff that I grew up with, like those black ultimate paintings by Ad Reinhart.  When those things are lit, they’re just knee buckling.  The disaster paintings by Warhol or Pollock’s stuff.  It’s great to have this stuff around.  I’ve been doing a lot of work in Belgium the past 10 years, and that’s what’s great about Belgium.  It has all this work around you, and some of it has been around for a thousand years.  Along with all this great contemporary work.  I enjoy working within that context.  That’s why it’s fun in New York to do these kinds of projects, that they are more, I don’t want to say casual, but what would the word be?  Integrated.

H: So what happens in a couple of weeks.  Just destroy it?

M: You mean the cow head?  Actually, we’re going to be sneaky and pull it to the back of the roof where you can’t see it.  But I’m thinking of making it re-appear in another position and have a video projector in it projecting on a wall.  But I think it would be interesting to have the moving image involved.  But the trick I found, because I was doing all these projections down Maspeth Ave for a couple of years, just these guerrilla video projects.  They always worked best when the frame of the object wasn’t there.  Where the building was the frame.  The frame becomes the architecture.

B: Sounds good.  Looking forward to seeing what’s next.  I’ll put this up tomorrow so people have a chance to read it and then go see the cow before it’s moved.  Should we go in?  Looks like we can still catch the end of the of the baseball game.

 

Moo-Moo remains on display at Diner, 85 Broadway, Brooklyn, until this Saturday, Nov. 7th 11:55pm.

INTERVIEW: Juan Gomez

Juan Gomez is a New York-based painter and long-time friend of zingmagazine.  He stopped by the office yesterday to discuss his upcoming solo show at Charlie Horse Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which opens this Thursday, Oct. 28th and runs through Nov 13th. Here’s what he had to say…

 

Brandon Johnson:  I came to your work through zingmagazine, when I first started here.  Issue #21 featured a project by you tilted “Rhythm,” which was a series of watercolors.

Juan Gomez: Yes.

B: Of sort of erotic scenes, figures, involving very flexible and sexual situations.

J: [Laughs]

B: And then later I saw your work at the Dikeou Collection in Denver, an earlier series of drawings, which was also featured in zingmagazine, issue #10.  These were line drawings, similar subject as the project in issue #21.  But I would say a little less expressive, they’re subtler.  Now you have work coming up at a show in Williamsburg at Charlie Horse Gallery, and I just had a chance to look at these.  They’re definitely different than you previous work, or at least your work in zingmagazine, but at the same time not so far off.  How would you say you came to working in this way?

J: For the show?

B: Yes.

J: I’ve always done two things: abstractions and figurative work.  When my first project with zing, with Devon, came out I was just starting to show.  And that’s what I was showing—abstractions. That’s all I was really pushing out, was the abstract paintings.  At the time, I knew Devon was running zingmagazine, and I had an appointment and I thought maybe I would bring her something more graphic friendly because my paintings at the time were black on black abstractions…

B: Right, and that doesn’t come out well in print so much…

Juan: It was something that was kind of difficult to translate.  And they’re large.  Not just black on black and abstract, but they rely on size to give you a physical effect, the textures and everything else.  The opposite of something you would want to attempt to reproduce in print.  So, I thought maybe I’ll bring photographs of other work.  I’ve always had this way of working. I always draw a lot.  But back then I didn’t consider them to be a part of any body of work or related to anything particular of interest.  I thought maybe they would be good to bring along, as a back up plan.

B: Uh-huh.

J: So I brought those to things over and she went for the erotic drawings, which were very personal and I had never shown them. 

B: So it was a bit of a leap to publish them in a magazine with international circulation…

J: At first I was afraid she was going to react strongly to the sexual content.

B: Because they’re a bit graphic…

J: Graphic, violent, sexual, in a way.  So I told her, she was there with Geraldine [Postel], I told her before I showed the slides that they might be a little…

B: Parental discretion required.

J: I don’t know how you feel about, but let’s see how it goes.  It’s sexual and this and that.  And she said “Yeah, sure.  Go for it.  Let’s see it.”  I was surprised by how she reacted to it.  She was very receptive.

B: Obviously she liked them well enough to acquire them for the Dikeou Collection, which was probably pretty amazing for you.

J: Yeah, that was a double-whammy.

B: You’re in a collection, in a magazine, with something you never really thought you would show.  So, for issue #21 you were doing watercolors, similar, I would say, to the first series, “Share” in issue #10.

J: Those had more aesthetic elements than “Share”.  “Share” was more straight pen or pencil, charcoal on paper like taking notes.  The second series, “Rhythm” was composed of watercolors, in color, and in that way was a little different in that I put more attention into what they said to me.

B: Now looking at your newest work, I see a progression of how “Share” was just line drawing, black and white, then with “Rhythm” there’s the watercolor, but with a limited palette, still between line and color.  Now you’re using strong background colors, bringing it to the forefront.  Could you comment on how you came to this?

J: For this show the pieces are more integrated in terms of the abstract and figurative parts.  Each piece has a balance between the two.  One is just as important as the other.  If you go back to the first project I did with zingmagazine, it was all about the figure.  Very literal.  The second one is less literal.  There’s still no background, just atmospheric color tones.  In these, the background fights for the foreground and the figure recedes or comes forward depending on which on it is.  I’m very excited about them.

B: Yeah, definitely.  I would only really recognize the figure just from my experience with your previous work, as opposed to others who would walk up to the painting with no context.

J: For some people it would just be abstraction.  The figure would not be present.

B: Exactly.  Some show more figure than others, but you could definitely read any of them as abstract painting.  That’s one quality I liked when I saw these images in a preliminary sort of way.  So this is bringing abstraction back into the fold, especially in this series of figuration.  This is an interesting progression.  And “progression” was a word that I was thinking of in considering these three series.  But going back to the beginning, what was this impetus to use this erotic subject matter for these drawings and paintings.  You said your main way of working was abstraction, but also had this going on.  Is there a story behind this?

J: Well, there’s always a story.  At the time I was working on my drawings. I had a lot of cheap paper and a lot of charcoal and markers, just trying to loosen up the line.  Doing drawings that were more literal and figurative, but not erotic.  Then one day, I just tapped into something.  I’m drawing and drawing, basically doodles and scribbles, meaningless.  Just letting lines flow.  And sometimes I would see a figure and follow up on the next drawing and the following and I end up putting things together.  Then at some point, I came up with this very strong imagery, very erotic, very sexual.  The first, second, etc.  I did hundreds of drawings.  It gave me a lot of material and drive to figure out different, obviously personal things.  A Pandora’s Box kind of a thing.

B: So, you were in your studio, drawing, and it expanded out into something bigger.

J: I usually have a very systematic way of loosening up to get into a painting.  Because the paintings, I never plan them.  I just go onto the canvas and come up with a painting.  But before I had to channel my energy with some kind of structure to get started.  They became sexual.  They were charged.  I tapped into something that I had never explored, just opened a door and it became fluent.

B: The figure has always been a classic form for a painter.  This work inherits the figure as form, because you are really stretching the figure, modifying it and bending it and it is all very obvious when you’re doing it.  You can look at the painting or drawing and it clear that you’re distorting the figure to explore ways of using the medium, the brushstrokes and textures of the paintings.  The title of your project in #21, “Rhythm” gives a good sense of that.  There is definitely flow, a rhythm to your work.

J: Like the jamming section before a music show.  Like when you warm up in an informal setting, using different sounds.  Things like that.

B: Yeah, they seem like variations on a theme.  There are lines, the limbs are very thin, curving and bending around the picture.  You also take that into the new set of paintings.  The figures boil down to these sets of lines in a similar way, but are more detached now.

J: They’re a language.  They are intuitive and subconscious in a way.  I try to let them be themselves.  But they also became…when you write, you can write but a certain way.  The way you write is just the way you write.  So, the work does have that look of using certain formal structures.

B: Having just gotten back from Buenos Aires, my first time in South America, I wanted to discuss your Colombian background.

J: Sure.

B: So you came to New York in 1990, when you were 20 years old?

J: ’89.  I was nineteen years old.

B: And you came for school?

J: Yeah, as a student.  I had a student visa.  Sort of a runaway from home kind of thing.  Actually I had been out of my house for a while already and I had a chance to take the leap here.

B: Would you say coming from Colombia has influenced your work in any noticeable way?

J: I don’t make many conscious decisions about influence in my work.  I’m not very thematic or intellectual or conceptual.

B: Would you say maybe as a cultural product…

J: I hope it comes though, filters out into the artwork and somebody would say, “Oh yeah this guy might be Columbian.”  Latin America has a lot of richness. It’s something I’ve been into lately.  Latin America absorbs elements.  For example, Colombia is not one unified group of people.  It’s very regional, so it depends if the people are more Spanish, Indian native, Black.  Even America is like this.  Everything is allowed in, in a way.  It is not a very selective cultural environment.  Let’s say you go to France.  They have a very strong cultural heritage and they hold it very dear, which shapes their cultural identity.  Latin America is open to different things.  They make it their own and then it comes out as something unique.

B: Yeah, I went to MALBA while I was there and really enjoyed the work by Argentine artists on view, which I haven’t had much exposure to previously.

J: It would be good to see more representation by Latin American artists in New York.

B: I agree, especially in the museums.  Let’s discuss the show coming up a little more.  I wanted to flesh this out before we finish.  It’s coming up, happening now at Charlie Horse Gallery in Williamsburg.  How did you get involved with Charlie Horse?

J: A friend, Catherine Ahearn.  She’s a young painter friend of mine.  We’ve known each other for a while.  Just recently, in June, she opened a project space and a gallery [Charlie Horse] and she asked me if I wanted to put up a show and give her some pieces for a group show, which was up in July.  After that she said she was thinking about giving the gallery a one-year run and said if I was interested in having a solo show, she would put it up.  So, that’s how it came about.

B: Was the work selected for the show things you were working on anyway, or did you make this work for the show?

J: I was already working in this direction.  But all the work was made in the last two months or so.  They didn’t exist before July.  They’re mostly small paintings, 25” x 30”, but there are also two large ones, 48” x 60” and 60” x 96”.

B: The gallery is in Williamsburg.  What do you think about the Williamsburg art scene?

J: I’ve shown there before.  At Momenta and Pierogi.  I like the scene there because it doesn’t have that institutional feel.  There are entrepreneurial artists starting spaces.  But it’s on more of an eye-to-eye level.  Less commercial, institutional.  I’ve always liked that idea and I’ve always seen good shows there.  I knew people there before the galleries started popping up, too.

B: Anything in particular you wanted to discuss about your show?  I mean, from what I’ve seen it looks like it’s going to be a good one.

J: I feel great about it!  I have a good feeling about where I’m at right now in terms of painting.

B: Thanks for the time, Juan.  Can’t wait to see it installed!

 

Juan Gomez opens this Thursday (Oct. 27) 6:30-8pm at Charlie Horse Gallery, 28 Marcy Ave, btw Metropolitan and Hope, Brooklyn.  Runs through Nov. 13.