Dennis Cooper is an American writer and artist based in Paris. In 1987 he moved from New York to Amsterdam, where he wrote his novel Closer (1989), the first book in his celebrated pentalogy, “The George Miles Cycle” (1989–2000). “Closer—The Dennis Cooper Papers,” an exhibition based on the cycle and incorporating works by Vincent Fecteau and Falke Pisano as well as a new commission by Trisha Donnelly, is on view at the Kunstverein in Amsterdam through June 23, 2012.
WELL, YOU PROBABLY KNOW that George Miles was very troubled. When we met I was fifteen, and he was twelve. I was taking care of him and he was kind of schizophrenic. I knew at that age that I wanted to write this big work or something, and it slowly became the cycle. I planned the structure of the books in advance. I wanted to write about disorientation and acts of sex and cruelty, and try to articulate things that are impossible to articulate in language, like desire and the incoherence of violence and love.
I didn’t originally think I would write the books for George. That was a later development. I decided that if I made him the mutating main character of this series, that it would have a kind of heart. If I used him, I would let myself go to extremes. But in some way the books would always be on his side, would always protect him because that was the way I felt about him as a person. And I talked to him about it and I asked him if I could use him as the model character and he said yeah. He thought it was fine. You know, he was pleased.
There used to be this big annual literary festival in Holland called the One World Poetry Festival. I came over to read in the early 1980s, and I met this person and, you know, things developed as they do with people, and then long story short I ended up following him to Amsterdam. We started fighting within a week and it didn’t last, and then I was just here on my own for two and a half years.
I just needed to get away from New York. One, I was doing too many drugs. Going to Amsterdam to get away from drugs is such a dumb idea, and it didn’t work. And then honestly I didn’t have much money and even then the rents in New York were not great, and I really like the city but two years is about all I can take. Plus AIDS was happening and all my friends were dying and sick so it was just a horrible time. So I’d kind of had it. I wanted to be someplace really foreign. I didn’t have any friends; I was sort of bored and lonely. It wasn’t like I specifically came to write a book, but I was pretty much ready to do it.
While I was in Holland I wrote George a bunch of letters. I didn’t have a telephone or anything. He never wrote me back. But that was like him because he was kind of a mess. I went back to the US and I tried to get in touch with him and I never could. It turns out he killed himself in 1987, and I didn’t finish the first novel until maybe 1988, so he never read any of it. I still feel close to him. I continue to write about him, I just don’t use his name. He ended up being kind of my muse.
Outside of fiction I write these theater pieces with Gisèle Vienne, like that thing in the Whitney Biennial. The last piece we did, This is how you will disappear, has a whole forest and a forty-minute fog sculpture by the artist Fujiko Nakaya, which requires this huge system of pipes over the stage. It’s very expensive to bring overseas. There’s been a lot of interest, but nobody has any money for that in the States. I also do this blog, which is really time consuming. I sit down and write these “P.S.’s” where I talk to all the responders for like three or four hours. And it’s just like “blah blah blah”—it’s really different from my prose. But it’s actually useful. In my last novel, The Marbled Swarm, there is a little bit of the tempo of that kind of writing. But to me they are really separate. A blog is just writing letters. In some ways doing the blog made me want to make the prose in my novels even more difficult, more of a trick or game or challenge. If anything, I wanted to get away from the blog while I was writing that book, get as far away from it as I possibly could.
The Fales Library at New York University has all my stuff. I wrote “The George Miles Cycle” in scrapbooks and I wrote everything by hand. There’s so much analog printed material and weird things that I made as part of my investigation. So that’s fun for them to have, because it’s a goofy collection. The blog is just a bunch of stored information. I mean, they want everything. I am supposed to keep sending them things until I croak or whatever. I guess I should start backing up the blog.
Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007–January 2008.
Several years ago, filmmaker James Benning built first one, then another small cabin on property he owns in California. Modeled on the redoubts constructed by Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber), Benning’s cabins are the subjects of Two Cabins, a new book edited by Julie Ault and published by A.R.T. Press.
I HAD BOUGHT A “TURNKEY” PROPERTY IN THE MOUNTAINS, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.
It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s. I realized building a second cabin would be akin to what I had done when I made the film American Dreams in 1984. I had started that film with images of baseball cards, with Henry Aaron, to which I added political speeches and popular music. At the time that also seemed too cute, which is why I added excerpts from the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who wanted to shoot Nixon and who did shoot George Wallace. This gave the film a counterpoint, crossed the wires between good and bad. As I was building the Kaczynski cabin I imagined it as a kind of sculptural version of American Dreams. But as I did more research about Kaczynski I found him to be much more complicated than Bremer. Bremer’s diary does show that he had a political side (though he often contradicts himself), but the diary made it clear that his main desire was to become infamous. Kaczynski may have started his bombing campaign from pure anger, but from the very start he also had a goal, that is, to destroy the technological society before it destroys us. And here he makes arguments we should pay attention to.
The project is still growing; this book, though an important labor of love with my friends Julie Ault and Dick Hebdige, isn’t the end of it. I added a library, and this summer I’m considering building furniture of the type Thoreau and Kaczynski utilized. I’ve also made a number of films. Two Cabins pairs views out of my cabins’ windows with field recordings taken in Lincoln, Montana, and at Walden Pond—sites of the original constructions. Nightfall was made nearby, a little higher up in the mountains, and is a ninety-seven-minute study of changing light, from daytime to complete darkness. It’s a portrait of solitude. Nothing happens—no wind, no movement, just changing light. I’ve shown it in Berlin and Newcastle, UK, so far, and both audiences were very gracious. Now I’ve just finished a third film, which is two hours long, consisting of four shots off of my porch in spring, fall, winter, and summer—in that order. It’s a grand view of the mountain, the valley, and trees, and in the corner of the image you can just see part of the Kaczynski cabin. Each shot is thirty minutes long, and for half of that time I read text from Kaczynski’s unpublished journals, and some other diverse sources including the Manifesto, and a prison interview from 2001, and some unpublished pages that the FBI confiscated at the time of his arrest and auctioned off last May. An artist friend bought them for $43,000 and gave them to Julie, who had been a big influence on that artist’s work. He knew she and I were working together on this book, and because of his generosity we had access to unpublished writings. It’s the first time I’ve made a text/image film in twelve or fifteen years. I should add that Julie takes the ownership of Kaczynski’s journals very seriously. She believes they should be archived properly and not misused. My intension is not to exploit, but rather to show how complex Kaczynski’s thinking is. I believe his warnings are just. Of course I find his methods wrong, but then again I pay taxes, which have been used to kill lots of innocent people over the past fifty years, so I guess I’m not so innocent myself.
This whole project will keep evolving as I get a better handle on what it says politically. I want to understand solitude, and relating to nature, as both of these men wrote about it. I want to know how one’s senses become more attuned to what is around us. We don’t practice paying attention anymore; we’re bombarded with too many things, we have too much to do. Being in the cabins helps me retain an attention span that allows me to look, listen, and feel deeply. When you’re in the woods, everything is important—whether a track on the ground or a noise in the distance. You have an entirely different way of relating to your environment.
Left: Cover of The 8 Train (2012). Right: Josh Melnick, The 8 Train, 2008–2009, still from a black-and-white film, 5 minutes.
Josh Melnick is a New York–based artist and filmmaker whose video portraits of seemingly frozen passengers on the New York City subway, The 8 Train, was commissioned by Art in General in 2009. A recently published book, designed by Project Projects and edited by Angie Keefer, expands upon this work and offers essays as well as interviews with luminaries such as Walter Murch, Lawrence Weschler, and Sharon Salzberg on time, consciousness, and the nearly imperceptible.
I WANTED TO MAKE A BOOK that builds upon the ideas underpinning the 8 Train installation, and it was important to me to create something that employs a process of dialogue and collaboration. I didn’t want to simply telegraph or replay the piece via documentation or descriptive critical analysis, but rather make the book its own project. The book was conceived and developed through a series of conversations with Angie Keefer. We began with an intention to engage in open-ended dialogue with each other and a selection of people across disciplines. Our collaboration then extended to include designer Prem Krishnamurthy of Project Projects, who also served as coeditor. We approached the book as an improvisation of sorts, using the films as a springboard for a multifaceted dialogue and exploring how a book might convey a time-based project.
For the video installation, I adapted a scientific camera to shoot slow-motion portraits of people on the subway. One of the camera’s abilities is to capture things that happen so fast that we can’t perceive them in real time. While I related to a long history of subway photography, the project isn’t about trying to capture anything specific about my subjects in that Walker Evans street photography way. I wanted to make portraits that emphasized the process of how we look and project meaning onto other people in public. I was trying to capture a portrait of the viewer’s projection, not a portrait of what was in front of the lens.
In The 8 Train, you’re looking at people in a way that is unfamiliar because of the camera’s expanded temporal detail. As you watch the portraits you may even begin to realize that what you think you see is not actually what you see. For example, you look at someone and their eyes are squinting and you have all these associations that go along with that––they are “mean,” they’re “not trustworthy,” they’re this or that––but over time you can come to realize that they’re actually just in the middle of some completely normal biological process, like blinking. My hope was that slowing down the associational processes behind a public glance might open up a little gap to think about other things in the world that we might also project meaning onto. Expanding on that, it’s connected to the idea that if art can defamiliarize the world we think we know, it can open up possibilities for shifts in consciousness that I believe can lead to social and political change.
While The 8 Train installation is concerned largely with looking and perception, specifically as it relates to consciousness and interpersonal communication, the book also explores and enacts those ideas by talking about looking with all these people who see the same thing differently. I’m interested in creating a space where multiple perspectives and points of view can coexist. The hope is that by allowing various and often conflicting perspectives to sit in one room, so to speak, one can shift attention to the true subject, which is the role perspective plays in how we construct the world.
We didn’t want to document the piece with installation stills or descriptions, for instance, which often just tell the viewer what they’re seeing, rather than engaging them. The images in the book at first appear identical to one another, but they are actually sequential stills that represent less than two seconds of real time (or four minutes of screen time) in the portraits. So when you look at the book you have to pay attention—or at least think about paying attention—which is ultimately the point of both the installation and the book.
In a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in East Los Angeles, artist David Thorne spearheads elysian, an event space and occasional restaurant that began last November with “Night In” dinners. The building is located in Elysian Valley (aka Frogtown), and has recently hosted a benefit for the LA-based nonprofit Machine Project as well as an evening with the food writer Molly Stevens. Here, Thorne—whose background includes farming in Vermont and working with the famed Bread and Puppet Theater—discusses the space, as well as his other recent work.
THERE IS ALWAYS SO MUCH HAPPENING IN LA, but because of the difficult layout of the city, there’s a need for more places where people can congregate. My sense is that there’s also a desire and a need for things that are happening on a smaller scale—a little bit deinstitutionalized, and a little more down-to-earth—but still stable; things that are self-supporting. That’s where we hope to fit in.
I used to live in this warehouse with my wife, Julia Meltzer, and during that time her arts nonprofit, Clockshop, coordinated a lecture series here, which generally brought into dialogue an artist and a civic leader or someone working in the social sciences. It was very different from just going to hear an artist talk, or a social scientist speak. With this new project we want to carry on that spirit of exchange.
Since 2005 one of my primary interests has been cooking. After I finished grad school I worked professionally in several LA restaurants. It’s not easy to make a living just making art. More recently, I decided to try to use this space for something new, and I also wanted to keep cooking but in a different type of setting, just to see what that would be like. Nonetheless, for all intents and purposes, the “Night In” suppers work like a restaurant. You make a reservation, you show up, then you sit down, someone comes and brings you something, takes your order, puts the order in, the food comes out, and so on. But people seem to sit and stay here longer, which has been really nice to see. It has to do with the feeling of the place. A lot of restaurants are just too schticky for me—even if they’re trying to be casual. I also feel fortunate to have the artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang managing events and developing that whole aspect of the enterprise.
We always have an interesting mix of people coming to the dinners and events, and we’re really trying to keep it accessible in terms of the price. Overall, the dinners have been good because they have helped us to quickly develop a presence and a feel. People see the place, maybe they refer others here, and an audience has developed out of that.
Julia and I previously worked on a number of projects together, beginning in 1999 with the Speculative Archive for Historical Clarification. She just finished a film, The Light in Her Eyes, which is quite different from our work: It’s more of a straight-on documentary about a girls-only Quran school in Damascus that encourages women to pursue higher education and jobs using Islam as a catalyst for change. But even though we’ve been working on different and separate projects, we have recently revisited two videos we made in the mid-2000s with a young Syrian actor, Rami Farah—a great performer, who thankfully is not in Syria right now. So we’re now taking segments from these pieces, Epic . . . and Not a Matter of If but When . . ., and posting them on YouTube as short clips.
The material from the videos was originally developed as short monologues, which we compiled into longer pieces. Recently it felt right to us to begin breaking the works apart again—and every other day, or maybe twice a week, we put up another video on YouTube. Given the current dire situation in Syria, and after several long Skype conversations with Rami, we decided that we had to do something else with this work. And it’s interesting that although the material is dated, it’s still very resonant.
Mikala Dwyer, The Additions and Subtractions, 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.
In the past few years, work by the Sydney-based artist Mikala Dwyer has shifted away from its feminist, post-punk inclinations and toward a focus on the occult. Here, Dwyer discusses her two current exhibitions, “Panto Collapsar” at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre, which is on view until March 31, and “Drawing Down the Moon” at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA). The latter is the first major survey of her “paranormal” works and can be visited until April 14, 2012.
I’VE ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTED in exploring an “extra space,” something between two traditional spaces, like an extra dimension or an extra language. That’s why the objects in my installation are almost irrelevant, even though there seems to be a huge amount of attention placed on them. I always show a lot of stuff—I sent three truckloads of junk up to the IMA. It included works and precious things packaged in bubble wrap, but to me it’s all just material to start building another situation that aims to open up that extra space. I’m also interested in how memory functions in my work; subsequently I’ve used the same matter and materials again and again. Over time, those materials become possessed in a waylike a ghost possessing magnetic tape or an object.
There’s an organizational aspect to the occult that I don’t find in other things. Tarot cards, palm readings, and séances are all kinds of tools; they articulate or frame voids, and what occurs in those voids keeps me on edge—they offer the poetic possibility that just maybe something will appear. Those organizing systems often take the form of a circle, which is a tight form of geometry, a completely closed system—a psychic fortress that can hold together disparate thoughts and objects. I often use circles for exactly this reason, as holding patterns—ways of shaping thoughts, creating taxonomies of things that temporarily hold against loss. I make one or two circle works a year, and even though each one is always very different, they’re usually called The Additions and Subtractions. I always try to build them so they’re very specific to the time and space in which they sit.
A good example is the one I recently made in Dublin. I wanted to do something with gold and started with the idea of a kind of reverse alchemy—turning a precious material back into base matter. It was a play on gold’s recent economic power: As you watch the price of gold going up, you can sometimes see economies going down. While this has been the case in Ireland, I was also interested in the archaeology and mythology of gold in Dublin—the extraordinary collections found in the bogs and so on. It also relates to my mother’s background; she was a silversmith, and in a way, I was drawn to that material because of her.
I think there’s always been an inherent violence in my work, or at least a vulnerability that infers a kind of violence. In 2010, I had a residency on Sydney’s Cockatoo Island, which once housed a prison and later became a place where “wayward girls” were interned. I grew up near that island, and being there for six months made me more acutely aware of the history of violence in Australia. Australians are really the jailers and the jailed, the cops and the convicts, and that mentality is deep in our psyches—we’re haunted by it. Brisbane, for example, is a very edgy place: It’s a tropical wonderland, beautiful and fertile, but there’s also a down-and-out violence to it. Maybe it’s the heat that drives up the crime rate. So it’s an interesting place to have a survey show. I have so much junk, so much history, that sometimes I just want a can of petrol and a match. The IMA exhibition is a good way to process a lot of the stuff I’ve done recently, but also to get rid of it, so I can start something new.
Shady El Noshokaty, StammerA Lecture in Theory, 2009–10, multimedia installation, 14 minutes 7 seconds.
Stammer, an ongoing project by the Egyptian artist and professor Shady El Noshokaty, began as a teaching demonstration for students at the American University in Cairo, and is on view until March 17 in “Histories of Now: Six Artists from Cairo” at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For the Egyptian pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, El Noshokaty curated work by Ahmed Basiony, who was killed in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Here, El Noshokaty discusses the origins of Stammer.
MY PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL MEMORY of being a child with a stutter is the subject that forms the crux of this project. I began researching this particular speech disorder about four years ago as a way to get in touch with the self-awareness it accorded me from an early age. Since then, it has grown into a multifaceted project that utilizes multimedia, texts, drawings, videos, and installations that explore the relationship between pre- and postrevolutionary Egypt.
Stammer is an attempt to represent how the combination of time, distance, place, relations, names, situations, and actions creates an elaborate map of the human persona—it is through these elements that our existence gains meaning. A speech impediment like stammering enables one to see limitations within the virtual mental environment that exists within our heads.
I often think of consciousness as bound within three parallel planes—the mind, physical existence, and imagination. The moment when one stammers is the moment when consciousness is disrupted and the mind loses control—one is unable to chose which plane will be presented to interact with the outside world. In Stammer, I try to move consciously through those planes to other areas of extreme subjectivity derived from my personal memories and subjective history through a virtual conceptual logic.
I began experimenting with these ideas through a lecture in which I tried to create an illustration of philosopher John R. Searle’s book Mind: A Brief Introduction. One of the chapters explains the relationship between the physical mind, the emotional mind, mathematics, and the measurement of feeling and emotions. I wanted to question the dual relationship between the body as material and the mind as a control system, testing the way our bodies supposedly have freedom to move but where the mind is the ultimate controller. Stammering reverses this process—it is the state of interference: The body conflicts with the mind, asking for another thing than what the mind has directed.
In the performance, I develop this idea through drawing, attempting to create a symmetrical drawing that comes from the center and formulates a pattern that is centralized around that point. I wanted explore the way our brain could control the borders of ourselves. The mind might be the central control system, but with stammering that control is very cracked; that symmetrical pattern could be destroyed because there is power coming out of the body that breaks the symmetry. There is a crash that happens, but within the work, before the crash, is this perfect symmetrical drawing—and just as I am finishing, you begin to see the destruction: The line itself destroys the pattern and control it worked to create.
Josephine Meckseper, Manhattan Oil Project, 2012, steel, plastic, hardware, paint, 25 x 23 x 6'.
For the Manhattan Oil Project, the German-born, New York–based artist Josephine Meckseper has installed two twenty-five-foot-tall sculptures inspired by mid-twentieth-century oil pump jacks in The Last Lot, a project space in Times Square organized by Art Production Fund. The project is on view from March 5 to May 6, 2012.
THIS IS technically my first large-scale public sculpture. In the 1990s I produced a conceptual magazine, FAT, which was kind of like public art because it was distributed at local newsstands. Similar to the magazine, the oil pumps are art disguised as something real. Both projects use recognizable generic forms to subvert an elitist art vocabulary, one typically not accessible to a broad audience.
My main motivation for installing oil pumps in the middle of Manhattan was to use forms that were already ingrained in people’s consciousness and therefore inherently understandable. I wanted to make a conceptual monument representing what was going on in 2012, and the pumps signify various current sociopolitical issues—from war to the world economy to the exploitation of natural resources.
The oil pumps are made out of three tons of steel each. The familiar forms appear jarring when juxtaposed with throngs of tourists, harried office workers, and a sea of advertising. In this area of diversion and commercialism, the sculptures become the hard-edged reality of a culture that is defined by its control of supplies of natural resources.
The surrounding theaters provide a distraction and escape from such real-world issues. But the nearby Port Authority, on the other hand, defines the neighborhood more realistically. For many immigrants, this terminal is a launch pad for their hopes and dreams. Picking up on this notion, the pumps can be seen as symbolic of the quintessential American dream, left over from the frontier days: striking it rich.
A New York metal shop called Pabst Enterprises, which typically makes large metal specialty parts for big telecommunications networks, fabricated the sculptures. There are very few plants like this still working on the East Coast, since this type of production is now largely outsourced to China and elsewhere. It was important to me to work with a company that makes industrial products, not art sculptures. Fifty years ago this plant built giant parts for the US Navy. There are still old train tracks on the factory floor there, which reminded me of the giant steam train my father bought in the ’70s and installed on nineteenth-century tracks next to the train station in my hometown, Worpswede, Germany. The similarly anachronistic look of the oil pumps echoes the more innocent beginnings of the industrial revolution, now escalated to a tenuous reality defined by our dependency on oil.
Paul Graham, East Broadway, 7th April 2010, 4.03.42 pm, 2009, pigment print mounted on Dibond, each 56 x 74 1/4".
Paul Graham is a British artist based in New York and a recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in the category of photography. His latest body of work is on view in “The Present” at the Pace Gallery until March 24. In conjunction with the exhibition, MACK will publish a monograph of his new work. Here, Graham discusses the sixteen diptychs and two triptych photographs in the show.
THESE ARE NEW YORK STREET PHOTOGRAPHS, that unique genre of photography where you dance with the Brownian motion of life. To photographers, street photography is a Himalayan range that the foolhardy pit themselves against. Or maybe it’s a shibboleth, a mystical visual code that only the indoctrinated members of our cult speak and revere. Take your pick.
But this isn’t regular street photography: It’s not black-and-white or 35-mm; it’s not deep focus, not close or confrontational, not wide angle, and there’s little drama. I use a normal lens, color, and shallow focus. Nothing is staged. Instead of a single picture, it embraces the before and after moments, so you see the people switching positions across a diptych: Life and its doppelgänger arrive and depart, as you quietly shift your awareness.
Normally, photography offers these frozen shards of time where the world is ossified into a singular moment. I’ve struggled to get away from that brittle, crystalline notion by inviting time into the work, making it a quality that you feel and experience. You see how events unfold, not only externally but also internally, from the consciousness-flow as we go about our lives.
Photographs usually have this false democracy of deep focus, where everything is sharp and equally detailed. That reading is denied in these pictures by the shallow focus. This is actually truer to how we see: in shallow spot focus. Try it for yourself. So there was a conscious decision to render these images in this way, how we alight upon this detail, and then, a fraction later, this one . . . and so forth.
There is one surprising diptych of a woman falling over. I don’t seek out moments like that, but they do happen, as with life. I do not set up situations or create a tableau vivant––the late 1990s were dominated by that kind of work, so it’s interesting to me that there’s again space for photographic artists to work in the world, but this time with full awareness of the developments in art photography over the past twenty years. It’s great to bring that knowledge into play with life-as-it-is, and close the circle.
Time is present not only in the fractions of a moment contained in the images, but also long term, as decades from now we’ll look at this work with the same distance with which we regard vintage street photography today—like the wonderful images by Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander from the ’60s and ’70s. The signage, the cars, the clothing, they will be dated to us. We can’t see it now as the glass is too foggy at this point, but it will clear. Hence the title: “The Present.” In a way that speaks to how photography works, where every picture you take is of the present but immediately becomes the past. So the title is a reminder of these unique qualities of the medium, and its struggle to deal with time and life. Sometimes I think those are our materials. Not film, not paper, not prints: time and life.