For the 2012 Bucharest Biennale, artist Jill Magid will exhibit her novella Failed States, which chronicles her experiences as she trained in 2010 to be an embedded journalist in Afghanistan as well being witness to a shooting at the Texas state capitol building that same year. An interdisciplinary artist who engages with institutional structures and notions of intimacy, attempting to materialize phenomena like secrets and risk, Magid’s work encompasses performance, prints, sculpture, video, and writing. The biennale is on view from May 25 to July 22, 2012.
WHAT IS A WITNESS AND WHAT IS PARTICIPANT? This is a vital question that arises in Failed States, a project I began working on in Austin, Texas, which consists of multiple pieces, such as sculptural components, prints, video, and sound pieces. The project was inspired by a New York Times article that examined the connection between snipers and their targets. The writer of that piece curiously emphasized a kind of intimacy to describe their relationships.
Soon after I began work in Austin, I witnessed a man named Fausto Cardenas shoot six bullets into sky in front of the Texas state capitol building. Immediately apprehended, he spent the next eighteen months incarcerated, charged with a terrorist threat against a government institution. During the time Fausto was in jail, I was training in Texas with a journalist—named “CT” in the novella—to embed with the military in Afghanistan, as part of the original impetus for the project in Austin. I began to consider my position at the scene and in the press as a witness, if only by coincidence, to Fausto’s act. Subsequently, I made the decision to remain his witness, flying out for every hearing, forging an intimate relationship with both the prosecutor and the defense attorney as a way of better trying to grasp Fausto’s act, for which he never gave reason. While I was training to be the kind of witness who goes to a war zone and writes about what transpires there, I was committing myself to be another kind of witness, one who follows a man and his painfully slow journey through the US court system long after the press (and public) have lost interest in him.
The Bucharest Biennale is largely focused on the question of what makes up a public. Anne Barlow, the curator, is focusing on artists who use research as means to investigate certain unknowable facets of civic institutions as well as those who also infiltrate those systems by means of seduction. Generally, my practice is distinguished by multiple events: The first is performative, involving experience and research that deepens into a process that serves as source material for the objects and writing, while the second is contextual, how and in what forms the materials are manifested for the public. In regard to the latter, I decided to present Failed States the novella for the first time, but I was worried and curious about how Failed States, which is focused around such American themes as gun control, US foreign policy, and journalists embedding with the American military, would translate in the context of a biennial in Romania. Aiming to resist these issues, I decided to collaborate with three of the nation’s magazines: Vice, which has a Romanian arm; Taboo, which is a women’s fashion magazine; and Zeppelin, an architecture magazine. Each provided briefs on what they wanted for the context of their magazine and how it would relate to the novella. In a way these magazines act as three extended venues of the Bucharest Biennale. The book and magazines will be installed as a reading area within this amazing old and decayed building called the House of Free Press, which was originally built as the media center of Bucharest and later became the voice of the Communist Party.
For me, writing is a form of drawing; like sketching, it comes immediately after the experience and the observed situation, allowing me to capture detail when it is fresh. Someone told me this is a romantic way of writing. This is my process and it is the reason why I am so emphatic that my work is not fiction. Some people may assume that what I write is fiction, but for me, obviously a relationship or a sensation of a relationship can’t be fact-checked but all of the historical or social-political markers that I am discussing can be. It is important to me that what I write is true.
Ulrike Müller is an Austrian-born, New York–based artist whose work investigates form as a mode of critical engagement. In 2007, Müller found an inventory list describing a collection of feminist T-shirts at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She distributed individual image descriptions from this list to 100 artists, inviting them to translate the texts into drawings. The result, Herstory Inventory: 100 Feminist Drawings by 100 Artists, is a collaborative rethinking of the queer, feminist archive. The project’s debut exhibition is at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria through June 24; it will return to New York for a reconfiguration at the Brooklyn Museum that opens on June 29.
IN FEBRUARY I went to Bregenz to see the space, and I realized that this show was going to be a challenge architecturally, institutionally, socially, and personally. I had to find my own position vis-ŕ-vis my history of the place, my experience returning there, but also my familiarity with it. I do translation work and this was the biggest translation job I had ever been confronted with: to bring so many people with me, not in person but with their drawings, which are so much a record of a hand—of a mind thinking and a body moving, and one’s own subjectivity responding to a past that is a history sought out.
I was thinking about queerness, visibility, and absence. I wanted for the space to be a queer and social space, but at the same time I couldn’t assume there would be a presence of queer bodies or a familiarity with queerness as an idea, or an experience. What is a queer space without queer bodies? How could questions of social norms be activated in a space that could also possibly address bodies that don’t think of themselves as outside of norms? It was also important to consider language. I think for the whole project, making a claim and then using that to propel things forward has been an important strategy. The subtitle, “100 Feminist Drawings by 100 Artists,” intends to produce questions, to provoke. In some ways the whole installation, or my work in general, aims to spatialize problems and questions as something that can then be related to or talked about. That question of language, of what adjective to use and what to attach the adjective to, has so much to do with queerness.
I decided to create a more intimate space within the very cool monumentality of the museum, which is built onto a grid. I inscribed into the footprint of the square building a yellow rectangular floor that turned out of the grid and pushed up onto the wall creating a triangle, like a sheet of paper with one corner folded up. I thought of this 1,500-square-foot yellow floor as a painting space that came out of my own formal sensibility and vocabulary. To go really big with that was very exciting. There are four freestanding movable walls covered with 1970s-era wallpaper, playing with certain feminist tropes of domesticity. There are thirty-five drawings on the walls, partly originals and partly facsimiles. There is a table in the space where some are in printed reproduction and all one hundred are on an iPad slide show. There is a slide projector with details that I photographed and a five-channel audio installation of multiple voices calling out the inventory of T-shirt descriptions. The recorded voice is such a particular thing that is of the body without the body being present. It makes me think about the T-shirts in the archive as something that’s intended for a body but that body’s not there. A body trace.
The institution invited me to make a connection to local histories. I did research around the history of homosexuality in the region, but all that produced were records of repression, and I was looking for a more celebratory approach. The result of that investigation was one painting by Maria Lassnig that I found in the collection of the Kunsthaus, from 1975. It’s one of her first self-portraits with animals and she made it during her time in New York. That’s the only piece that went directly onto the concrete walls of the institution, facing the temporary walls with the drawings. It seemed a good way to open up conversation about feminism and imagemaking and politics.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya is a Brooklyn-based artist. His forthcoming publication Studio Work documents the art he made during his residency last year at the Studio Museum in Harlem; the book will be available through D.A.P. starting this fall. Select pieces from that residency are featured in the group exhibition “Surface Tension” at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, which is on view until June 24.
I HAD BEEN READING Brian O’Doherty’s book Studio and Cube, and was influenced by his concept of time, for instance how elements of perception and so on can be very different in the studio, as opposed to outside of it. And, the perception of time—my vantage point within its progression—is something that comes across in my works, especially those made during my Studio Museum residency.
My awareness of the studio as a site that informs my work came to the fore during my residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in 2010. I developed a routine where I would get up, make work, go over things made before, bike down to the lab, print, do some more editing, bring these new prints back into the space, and then rephotograph them.
During my time at the Studio Museum, a week might pass when no one would come to visit me and then all of a sudden there might be a day when three friends would drop by. In between these periods—before and after people brought objects into the studio or left traces of their stay behind—I observed how their comings and goings slowly began to be reflected in my studio surroundings, and I began to photograph what I saw as this ongoing process of interaction, and accretion, between myself, my friends, and the studio itself.
Speaking of comings and goings, I often hear of situations where individuals meet on the street and say, “I’ve seen that picture of you in Paul’s studio—naked!” Wayne Koestenbaum, for instance, who contributed an essay for Studio Work, had this experience with my friend Victor. Wayne had seen Victor’s image and was, well, taken with it. Some time later he ran into Victor on the street. I guess it can make for an interesting icebreaker.
One of the things about the Studio Museum residency is that you know there is going to be an exhibition at the end of the period. After talking with Naomi Beckwith as well as with AA Bronson, I decided that a publication would be the best avenue to present the experiences that occurred within the framework of “studio time.” Although I had already self-published a zine bearing the same title around the midpoint of the residency, Studio Work in its current book form came about at the end of, and in response to, my time as an artist with the Studio Museum. Ultimately, the book depicts the ongoing, dynamic relationships between myself and the individuals in my life.
For Pet Sounds at Madison Square Park, California-based artist Charles Long has installed an interactive installation consisting of colored pipe railings. The project was organized by Madison Square Park Conservancy and will be on view until September 9, 2012.
I WANTED TO CREATE SOMETHING THAT PEOPLE WOULD LOVE. An artist can use the invitation to make public work as an opportunity to critique mass consumerism, but that kind of critical relationship does not appeal to me. What led me to the idea for Pet Sounds was in fact my connection to pop culture. The title of my project is also the title of the Beach Boys’ 1966 album, which profoundly affected me as an artist. For me, Brian Wilson’s songs combine the aesthetic complexity of high art with a universal appeal that fosters an unabashedly human connection between the work and the listener. My sight-specific installation Pet Sounds pays tribute to the Beach Boys, but it is foremost a way to enchant the park and stimulate its community in my own way.
I’ve been going to Madison Square Park regularly for several years and have spent a great deal of time trying out ideas and considering the best way to integrate my art into this public space. People really use the park to do their own thing, be it reading, sleeping, eating, or meeting friends. Ultimately, I wanted to create a work that enhanced the experience of the park—in terms of how people enjoy and use this outdoor public space on a daily basis. I didn’t want to make a sculpture for the park as much as I wanted to extend the park itself into some kind of fantasy of sculpture.
What developed was a system of vivid colored railings defining pathways that spill out onto the great lawn leading one to a surreal park-within-a-park. As the rails converge around a tree, they grow into human-scaled amorphous blobs lounging on benches and plopping down on a picnic table. During my research, I made drawings and photos of people and animals in the park and wanted to transcribe these images into three-dimensional abstract forms that would create a somatic relationship between the installation and visitors. Whether a particular sculpture appears birdlike, doglike, or humanlike—each is open for interpretation—the forms absolutely connect to the physical and biological aspects of park.
There is a tactile and audible component to Pet Sounds. The skins of the blobs are sensitized so that as one smoothes a hand over the surface, there is an instantaneous response: The entire surface vibrates, producing a range of sounds. It’s fun to see all these hands groping the forms and visitors discovering the acoustic element. I notice a lot of dialogue between visitors, as multiple people can play together on the same form.
I wanted people to connect to these blobs and be affected in a strange abstract way, so their bodylike scale contrasts an elusive figuration. You can’t place it, but you seem to recall it. The slippery skins are so smooth, undulating, and synthetically sexy that they beckon you to caress them. Art is seldom something people can touch. In the open-ended public space of the park I chose to make touch essential and connection more likely.
Left: Cover of Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes (2012). Right: Enid and Rebecca in Ghost World (1997).
Daniel Clowes is an Oakland-based cartoonist and Academy Award–nominated screenwriter, known for seminal graphic novels such as Ghost World (1997), David Boring (2000), Ice Haven (2005), and Wilson (2010), which have redefined the language of contemporary comics. The retrospective “Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes” is currently on view through August 12 at the Oakland Museum of California and is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Alvin Buenaventura and published by Abrams.
THE BAY AREA CURATOR SUSAN MILLER approached me about five years ago and wanted to organize a retrospective of my comics, and I thought she was out of her mind. How many cartoonists get a museum survey of their work? It’s not like coming into a museum and saying, “We have a bunch of Cézannes, give us a show.” But I figured, why not try? We were looking at all the San Francisco–area museums, and I just wasn’t that enthused. San Francisco is such an overly precious city. Even though I live in Oakland, I probably go to San Francisco as much as I go to New York. Luckily, by the time our proposal was ready for submission, the Oakland Museum had received extensive funding that allowed it to be renovated from top to bottom. So they were like, “Yeah! Let’s do this!”
It was really important to me that the retrospective be in a “museum-museum” and not in a museum for comic art. The project was only interesting to me if it was in a different context from where my work is usually shown. That way, about 90 percent or probably even 99 percent of the people who come into the museum don’t know my work, which seemed like the only reason to do it. It’s as if cartooning was a way for me to sneak into the museum through the side door. I’ve done this my entire career, actually—I’ve snuck into being called an author, I’ve snuck into making movies, through comics. In a way, I feel weirdly guilty about it, but it’s also freeing. Most artists who have a museum retrospective—that’s a very loaded thing, in both positive and negative ways. But for me, it’s not even the main thing that’s going on with my life right now. It’s good I don’t have to obsess over it.
Right now I’m actually writing a screenplay, adapted from my graphic novel Wilson, and Alexander Payne is directing it. Wilson is a prickly character, and that’s the kind of character both Payne and I like. I won’t force a heartwarming moment in my work, unless the characters present it to me. At some point, they become sort of autonomous from me. Enid from Ghost World is one of those characters who wasn’t programmed to have likeable traits, and the audience’s relationship to her has really changed over the years. It used to be that about 90 percent of the readers loved her and 10 percent really hated her, but now I’d say it’s about 50/50, or even 40/60. Now people are like, “Why should I care about a girl who doesn’t even want to go to college?” I think things are more Darwinian out there nowadays, and it’s hard for people to deal with existential problems when they’re trying to get a job.
I used to be so anxious and stressed out about my career, trying to figure out my place in the world. Doing something and worrying whether people will like it or not, and what if they hate it, and then, “Well, this is it, this is the one everyone’s going to hate. I’ll never work again and I’ll have to go back to college.” And when my son was born a few years ago, then I was really freaking out and thinking, “Oh my God, what if my work doesn’t sell and we’ll have to go live in our car or something?” So I try to be happy and appreciative now about my career and work.
In terms of my schedule, I work every weekday from ten to five, and then a couple of hours later at night. As a self-motivated person you just have to train yourself like a monkey to do some of things that are real drudgery. But a lot of the actual making is still really fun. I can tell a mile away when somebody’s using a mouse instead of a pen. It’s you who’s in control of a brush or pen or pencil, and it’s some other guy who wrote a program that’s dictating the way you do things on a computer. There’s a big difference, even just psychologically. The sheer joy of it is really sitting down with that piece of paper and doing the work by hand.
Matt Wolf is a Brooklyn–based documentary filmmaker. His first feature, Wild Combination (2008), focuses on the avant-garde cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell. Wolf is currently at work on his second feature film, Teenage, and his short filmic portrait I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard will play at The Kitchen on May 7.
OVER THE PAST FOUR YEARS, I have been working on an unconventional historical film about the invention of teenagers. The film is based on Jon Savage’s book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, and it looks at the history of youth in America, England, and Germany before World War II. While making the film I’ve sourced over one hundred hours of archival footage and thousands of photographs of teenagers. Early on in that process, I wanted to develop a smaller project—something that I could complete by myself and with limited means. I had been exploring PennSound, an online audio archive of poetry, where I found some wonderful recordings of the artist and writer Joe Brainard reading from his iconic text I Remember, which is probably my favorite poem ever.
I love I Remember because it gives me an immediate and visceral sense of Joe Brainard’s humor, self-deprecating personality, and his gentle demeanor. And hearing Joe’s voice only deepens those impressions—it kind of made me fall in love. I wanted to make something that would add context to these recordings. Something that isn’t just a nostalgia piece or a straight documentary.
When I started thinking more about Joe’s work, I read a biography written by his best friend, the poet Ron Padgett, titled Joe: A Memoir. Ron loosely mines the style of I Remember by detailing countless addresses, correspondence, and anecdotes from his lifelong friendship with Joe. At first, I found the approach to be a little cold or dry, but as I continued reading, I was incredibly moved. To be honest, I think it’s the most vivid account of a friendship that I’ve ever read. The book made me reflect on my own creative life and community, and the significance of the bonds I share with other artists. I contacted Ron, interviewed him, and he helped me access materials to make the film. But I was a little stuck; I couldn’t figure out how to combine Ron’s interview with the archival recordings of Joe, so the project languished for a while.
But then Nathan Lee, a curator at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, approached me to do a project. I knew he was interested in the archive and queer genealogy, and I had always wanted to make an elliptical film installation, since I usually make features. So I enlisted the help of a sound designer and radio producer Mark Phillips. He helped me edit the piece into an organic, nonlinear conversation between Ron and Joe. Their dialogue jumps between the past and the present, between the rich and universal experiences that are discussed in Joe’s poems and Ron’s specific memories of his friendship with Joe.
There was also a complexity to what they were talking about that needed to be creatively illustrated. I started experimenting with dozens of films from the National Archives in Washington, DC, one of my main sources for Teenage. I have a collaborative relationship with a full-time archival researcher there named Michael Dolan. I give him themes, specific images, and ideas, and he sends me films. And when I watch them, I discover unexpected imagery that pushes me in new directions. These are usually government-produced newsreels and educational films, but they star real people, and for my purposes usually teenagers. I like to transform these stock subjects into loose characters. For I Remember I use several of a boy in an educational film about syphilis. He became an avatar for Joe, you could say. I’ve mixed these films with numerous photos and some beautiful 8-mm films that Ron created with Joe and other friends in their early twenties.
In a way, I think of the film as a gay-straight guy buddy movie. I think that’s an interesting social dynamic, which hasn’t been explored much in film. I know Ron is not keen to canonize Joe as a “queer” artist or icon. Nonetheless, a lot of young gay people like myself are interested in exploring the biographies of gay artists who died in the early ’90s from AIDS––to reclaim that history, I suppose. Joe is an important, and often overlooked, part of that story. The subject of my previous film on Arthur Russell is similar to Joe in that regard. In some ways, this film felt like the perfect bridge for me in terms of making a queer biography and an archival meditation about adolescence and coming of age.