Renée Green

Renée Green on making space for unknowability

Renée Green, Sites of Genealogy (Loophole of Retreat), 1990, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, MoMA PS1, New York, 1990. Photo: Tom Warren.

“I’ve never been interested in institutions per se,” Renée Green explained to me over Zoom in late November. “Always more so in the dreaming, in the fictional aspects that open up possibilities of how someone can live.” Amid a comprehensive survey of her work taking place at the Kunst Werke and daadgalerie in Berlin, the artist, filmmaker, and writer and I sat down in our respective homes in the city and discussed the current restaging of a work from 1990. In keeping with Green’s multilayered and associative forty-year practice, our conversation took off from this premise and circulated fluidly between different decades and broader topics, from surrealist installation to abolitionist memoir, from site-specificity to limitless imagination.

I WAS FIRST INVITED TO BERLIN by DAAD [the German Academic Exchange Service] in 1993 and arrived that year as a fellow hosted by their “Artists-in-Berlin” program. It was a very interesting and generative time of all sorts of transitions, as DAAD grappled with their move into the former East. Many of the people who actually live here today didn’t live here, then. The people I was working with, for example from Cologne, didn’t actually live in Berlin; Berlin people were another whole world. And that was the world I was meeting in 1993. When DAAD invited me back in 2019, their invitation concurred with a conversation already underway with Kunst Werke (KW).

Mason Leaver-Yap, the curator of the exhibition in KW, and I wanted to present Sites of Genealogy (Loophole of Retreat), which hadn’t been shown since its first presentation at PS1 in 1990. There, the work had grown out of an invitation to participate in “Out of Site,” an exhibition staged while the building was undergoing renovation. I was at PS1 for over a year and I could go up to the building’s attic space alone, anytime I wanted. I wrapped string around the space as a kind of measuring device. I stacked reams of blank paper next to a desk with a typewriter, to be used every time that I visited the installation; the pile of blank paper became smaller with the passing of time. The presentation was like a journal, a way through which people could see traces of my having been there. It was sort of a private performance.

Renée Green, Sites of Genealogy (Loophole of Retreat), 1990/2021, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2021–22.

One of the first things I did when I returned to Berlin was to visit KW and look at the space. Space is crucial for me in terms of gathering ideas, although I already knew that in order to present Sites of Genealogy, I needed a cellar, a stairwell, and an upper floor. The work has a literary element to it. It emerged from a desire to think about buildings and literature that refer to specific locations. But there are other kernels in it that extend outwards; for example, two canonical but also metaphorically parental figures in American literature, Richard Wright and Harriet Jacobs. Each of them evoke narratives that can be reiterated in different ways, different forms, even in different generations. Wright’s novel Native Son (1940) was hailed as the first depiction of Black life that was, in certain ways, modern, and Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) was interesting for many reasons, among them that the author had to insist that it was a true story. This overlapping of fiction and documentary offered me references that had to do with ways of thinking about aesthetic forms and space. I also thought a lot about art-historical sites, for example about Duchamp, his bags of coal and string, and the string that was in Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, The Art of This Century [open between 1942 and 1947 in New York].

I thought of these familial structures as forms of oppression, almost as a kind of irritation, rather than simply as something to be embraced. I’d like people to be aware that there is history, that there are references. There’s not just something out of nowhere: the “Yeah, there’s Blackness,” as is often presented in mainstream media. It’s also important to me that the work retain a certain impossibility, a certain feeling of ongoingness.

I’m often interested in what can be done in relation to others, but the impetus does not come from an institution. I definitely say this having worked in a number of them, and while still doing so. I have a daily familiarity with the institutional mode and its deficits. I think that people often desire to free themselves from the ways these structures are inoperable. As a person, in a body, I’m very interested in what happens in relation to the senses and perception, to all those things that can take place in a body. Recently, I’ve been referencing an expression from Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme, “not-knowing,” which I find invigorating, as it indicates a space for thinking and creating that’s large enough as to allow for not presuming, for not believing that “knowing” is the solution, or that there would even necessarily be a “solution space,” as it’s called in engineering. The space of not-knowing means being open to what other possibilities might arise, it means that you’re discovering in the process of engaging, interacting, and enacting. Importantly, “not-knowing” opens up to imagining, as well.