“EACH CLUB vies for the position of ‘favored art club,’ as a yet newer alternative to the art world’s alternative spaces. It seems to be what the art world wants.” Penned during the rise of Danceteria and Raymond Pettibon, Wild Style and No Wave, KIM GORDON’s early-’80s analysis of the intersections of the club scene and the art world seems as resonant today as it was on its publication in Artforum in 1983. Gordon wrote as a participant-observer, having cofounded the legendary band Sonic Youth two years before. And as a musician, artist, designer, and authorher memoir, Girl in a Band, is out this monthGordon has always chosen her points of entry into various worlds with precise timing and equipoise, finding inspiration in a Karen Carpenter single or a holiday wreath as much as in the art of Mike Kelley or Gerhard Richter. In her exchange here with NICK MAUSS, another dizzyingly peripatetic artist, who enlisted Gordon to perform in his dance work 1nvers1ons, 2014, this past autumn, Gordon reflects on an omnivorously interdisciplinary practice in which knowing “what the art world wants” is a material in itself, something to be shaped, reconfigured, and redeployed.
NICK MAUSS: I THINK PROBABLY THE FIRSTI wouldn’t even call it a performancebut appearance of yours that I saw in an art context was “The Club in the Shadow” . New York still felt relatively new to me, but I could tell that this was all wrongit was just so bizarre and off the mark. And yet you and Jutta [Koether] managed to create such a celebratory suspension of disbelief. Despite the context and because of it, you created this framework for people to be in, but nobody seemed to have any idea what was going on. At one point, I saw Chuck Nanney playing a Theremin and people were just waiting aroundit was like they were clawing the air, trying to figure out what
KIM GORDON: What was going on there?
NM: Yeah, or what the payoff was going to be and why.
KG: Kenny Schachter had found this space for shows, and he had Vito Acconci create the interior, a system of chain-link fencing or
NM: Some metal thing, I remember.
KG: Yeah, metal all over the walls. Nothing ever looked good in it. But it did have this ’80s club vibe. It was a unique location, “in the shadow” of these Richard Meier towers that were not quite completed.
NM: That cage structure sat so strangely in the space, and I remember the proximity of the piers. In a way, now, it looks like a perfect setting, and maybe also a setting of New York when it was beginning to become normal but was still a little bit weird.
KG: Well, we had decided to make a fantasy art club for the people who were buying condos there, like Martha Stewart and Calvin Klein. And it was at the end of an alley and was right by the water, so it had this feel of being at the edge of New York.
We decided to have events twice a week for a month. Ei Arakawa was doing performances; he would gather a few people and then lead them out somewhere. It was great to have different things happen, but maybe the best part was seeing people on a Sunday afternoon, sitting around the rubble of a Richard Meier building drinking beer.
NM: That casualness seems to relate to the work you’ve made under the rubric of Design Officewhere you would subtly alter the interiors of friends’ apartments and other spaces. Some ideas seemed to remain in the proposal stage, but others were put into practice, like the project you did at White Columns [in New York] in 1981, where you made over their office with borrowed chairs from collectors’ homes and put them around a table. And that structure shaped your recent White Columns show [“Design Office with Kim GordonSince 1980” (2013)], which also included projects you’ve done under your own name, or with otherspieces from “Dead Already” , the show you did at Reena Spaulings with Jutta, and writing about other artists that you had done much earlier.
Somehow the White Columns show was two things at once. My first impulse is to say that it was punk, or punk feminist. But it also had a fragility and carelessness to it. It made me think about how today, still, in the art world, the favored position is the kind of insider-outsider who is riding the apparatus but also making gestures at sabotageas if you have to do double duty, and that’s how you optimize your performance.
And that whole act didn’t seem necessary for you; it wasn’t manifest in the way you have made work or thought about art and have gone into the art world. Especially in your handling of the formal aspects of artmaking. It was as if that division between inside and outside wasn’t necessary.
KG: Yeah! Ha-ha. Well, a lot of my aesthetic deals with lo-fi design elements, and with using what’s already there. At “The Club,” for instance, Jutta and I were actually catering to what the gallerists wanted, in a way. Kenny wanted stuff to happen in the space.
NM: Right. He wanted something live.
KG: Yes. And we put our own design system on top of Vito’s, in combination with itpieces made of acoustic foam alternated with Mylar curtains that we hung on his metal structure. We made a couple of other things, too. And this provisional design was acting as a placeholder for the traditional notion of high design.
At Reena, it was their new space and they wanted it to not be like a regular gallery. They wanted it to be like a saloon, and they had a bar. [laughter] So we went along with it and referenced that lookwe were into that show Deadwood, which is about the political struggles and evolution of a dusty western town. We had Ei make corral barriers that could have a double meaning; they could also function as ballet bars for an Isadora Duncan open dance class and for a dance-oriented performance collaboration. Again, these were very temporary-looking things.
NM: The role of the spacethe gallery, its objects, its visitors, expectationsfelt somehow deflated, or as if all these functions had been deranged. One had to maneuver around inscrutable heaps of Carla Accardi–ish paintings and boxes on dollies, little heaps of intentions that could slide around, be kicked around. Possibility, but a kind of take-it-or-leave-it possibility. Is there a wariness there, not wanting to cohere into a graspable or palatable entity?
KG: Maybe there is a certain wariness about my work; I always felt outside of the art world. It’s interesting how the art world for so many years seemed so closed off to me, and now suddenly it isn’t.
NM: Do you have any idea how that happened?
KG: I think part of it is that now I’m not in a full-fledged, conventional rock band. That took up a lot of time. But I do also think the White Columns show helped. It was a way to finalize things; maybe it made my position clearer as a visual artist.
At one point I thought I wanted to have a conventional, successful art career, to get a major gallery. But that wasn’t actually even in my head when I first came to New York. Instead, I was reading about the Judson [Dance Theater] scene, or the Factory. I was interested in all these things that weren’t directly about product. So it was hard to figure out how to fit into the commercial art world. My astrologer told me, though, that the position of Neptune in my chart shows a certain blurriness that adds to the mystique.
NM: Oh. Well, that explains it.
KG: That’s a real concrete interpretation.
NM: But would you say there was a moment when you went from a more conceptual practicethe intervention- or writing-based approach that runs through the early part of that White Columns show, for exampleand then you started making
KG: More objects.
NM: Yeah, working in the studio with materials or making paintings.
KG: I mean, I have always painted. But it is a challenge to make objects that stand on their own. You always have to work in different contexts, or think about what context a piece will be shown in. So there is definitely something interesting to me about making an object that doesn’t have much of a physical apparatus, or insulation, around it.
And I just like the challenge of making. I like materials. To me, that’s always part of the process.
NM: Like the wreath paintings, where you’re taking an element of home decor and using it very physically as a stencil.
KG: I had made other paintings on Mylar and other materials, like the paintings of names of noise bands on canvas, but the wreath works might be my most conventional-looking paintings. The idea was to find something at Home Depot, in suburbia, and then imbue it with something else, transform it so that it took on different connotations.
NM: That also seems to be coming from the California part of you, not just lo-fi, but even an almost vernacular American
KG: Yeah, right. Like
NM: Trash art culture.
KG: The work alludes to all these different aspects of nature and suburbia, but at the end of the day, it could just be a tacky painting in someone’s house. [laughter]
When I exhibited the paintings at a Rudolph Schindler–designed house in LA [“Design Office ‘Coming Soon,’” 2014], I had been watching a lot of real estate–porn shows about home staging, like Flip or Flop, so I was really into the idea of staging the house, even though it was also substituting as a gallery. And people actually rent out that Schindler house and use it for different functions.
NM: But you left traces of a person who would have been living there. It was messier than a show house.
KG: There is something about those Schindler houses that have this really still, Maya Deren–mystery vibe about them, a Meshes of the Afternoon kind of thing. And so I just threw these black leggings on the rug in the bedroom and told Aaron [Moulton], the curator who was there every day during the show, that he could move them around if he wanted to.
I left a Joan Didion book by the bed. And downstairs in the basement, where I did the paintings, there was a big roll of plastic that was left overit looked like a giant heap of trash. And I had spray-painted on the floor, where I also made the paintings, but the floor was actually covered with a layer of plaster. It was virtually invisible, so it looked like I’d spray-painted right on the actual cement floor. I left all that there.
Aaron had a funny story about after the show. He said, “Can I have the leggings?” And he took them home and I think he threw them on his floor and his wife came home. She said, “What’s going on here?” [laughter] So then he folded them up and put them in a drawer.
He got a little piece of the art. But that whole exercise was also, in part, playing off my image as a public persona in the music world and trying to bring in a little of that.
NM: Your work is so liquidyou have a way of bringing it to the point of teetering between different roles and degrees of performance, and you manage to shuttle between intimacy and a sense of remove. What is it like for you to perform in an art setting?
KG: My paintings and installations all have a performative aspect to them. For the performances with Jutta, we usually have a text that we trade off and intersperse with gestural noise and music makingI guess we think of them as one-act plays or something like that.
Performing with Bill [Nace] and Body/Head is, of course, a more musical situation. But then Bill and I played at the Getty recently, and when you’re playing in a museum you feel that it’s more formal. There is something about the electricity, the physicality, the sound, in a space like that. There is a heightened awareness of that physicality when you’re in a museum setting instead of a club.
NM: In London, when we were working together [for the Frieze Art Fair], I asked if you could imagine writing a new text that would be performed simultaneously with a ballet in an art fair, and you wrote a drifting, interior prose piece, narrating the anxious experience of the fair as several conflicting desires and authorities raking into one another. The thing that amazed me was how absolutely distinct every day was from the one before. Every performance felt very intense in the present moment, from the first day, when we were all still quite raw and unsure, and then suddenly that Spanish gallerist with the flaming-red hair came over from her booth and complained about the noise and unplugged youand you just let it happen and said, “Well, I was about to finish anyway. I hope she comes again.”
Can you describe how you put yourself in that space of acute awareness but also spontaneity?
KG: Every day the costumes changed and the makeup was slightly different; you’re not exactly building it every day from the ground up, because it’s almost like an afterimage from the day before that you can work from. And as the dancers got more comfortable and I got more comfortable going into their area, it just grew organically.
It was almost like playing improv. Which is different from just jamming. Every gesture has a spatial awareness to it, so it’s almost like you’re building this room together, and by creating this atmosphere, certain demarcations or gestures happen and that creates sounds.
I like to feel like I could play with anyone, although I don’t necessarily want to do that.
NM: Can that space you describe be transferred to something like a gallery? I imagine it must be so difficult.
KG: It’s just different because performing live is so immediate, and . . . I don’t know. You probably know.
NM: For me, making a space in which one is implicated as a viewerI guess I’m talking about a space that registers as a heightened experienceis the thing that I try to develop again and again. And then to make that become a layered experience, something multidetermined and that may also dissolve again.
In my case, that has a lot more to do with delay and slowing down than it does with a feeling of liveness, and the kind of reactivity you need to have in order to really be reading someone and working with them in the moment.
I’m thinking of your writing and your word paintings, where the words become like objects that you’re hurling out in the form of paintings. You’re really good at letting the words resonate so that they seem to harbor double meanings or multiple modes of address, even if they don’t. It’s that blurriness again.
KG: It’s always difficult to envision how all the work will look together, to know if it will be a coherent body of work. The White Columns show freaked me out because I thought everything was going to look so separate, butI don’t know if synchronicity is the right word, but it all ended up looking like it was done by the same person. [laughter]
NM: And yet so much of it you made with other people.
Do you have any immediate plans for continuing Design Office, or is that a system that you would say has been replaced by another mode?
KG: I would like to think that it’s a kind of umbrella, that everything I do falls under Design Office. I want to confuse it with my name, to give my work another context, to get out of just doing gallery shows.
NM: CAN YOU TELL ME AGAIN about the video you showed at Participant Inc that’s about buying a Joni Mitchell CD [Stairway (Is It My Body?), 2003]? The one that’s basically all driving and lawns.
KG: That was almost like a little architectural toura memoir about growing up in boring West LA and wanting to live in Laurel Canyon where Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and all the cool people lived.
Somehow I got this idea about English musicians, and I thought of Jimmy Page, who’s the ultimate iconic male rock-guitar player, but I really feel like he’s influenced by Joni Mitchell. And then I found this interview where he talks about listening to her first record, which was Song to a Seagull, and crying.
So I decided to do these airbrush paintings, one of the drawn silhouette of Mitchell on her album cover for Ladies of the Canyon, that logo-ish line at one end of the gallery, and on the other end was Jimmy Page. Dave Markey shot the film for me. It was just driving around LA, down the streets, going to Sunset and into the iconic Tower Records store on Sunset, where they usually have bad paintings of old record covers on the outside. And then going through the canyon and out to the beach, trying to capture the city’s late-’60s vibe.
But it was also about how LA has so much super-fake landscaping and you realize, oh, it’s a desert, really, and everything you see is landscaped, artificialit’s not indigenous. And now people’s individual fantasies about customizing their houses are destroying the paradise.
NM: You recently mentioned that you were looking at the overblown ad copy on the exteriors of all the new condo developments in New York.
KG: Oh yeah. When I was in LA in art school, the real estate section of the Los Angeles Times was always a critical source of inspiration. Selling lifestyles with ad copy for these model-home developmentsit was just fascinating.
It’s insane how many condo developments are going up as pure investments in New York these days, for people who are never really going to live there. I just think it’s funny. I don’t really have any critical or ethical stance on it. Seeing the city change over the years, this is just the latest incarnation.
NM: Well, I haven’t read your memoir, but I have read a few memoirs recently in which the real subject of the book becomes: What happened to New York?
KG: That definitely figures in my book. But it’s not exactly like, Oh yeah, New York used to be so great. I mean, it wasn’t. But that kind of nostalgia is enhancing and dressing up the appeal of moving to New York.
I think one of those new buildings is called Fortress of Glassitude. It actually sounds like a heavy-metal band. I think there is another one called Thor.
NM: That’s impressively bad. You have an eye and ear for these uses of language, for words that can be tried on, or inhabited uncomfortably.
What about your relationship to writing, literature, and specifically narrative in your work?
KG: I start by writing, and then I get an idea or it becomes a part of the work in some show. Actually, that’s how the wreath paintings startedwhen Alex Zachary had that space in a town house uptown, I loved the space so much that I wanted to have a show there, and I started writing about town houseshow a town house is like suburbia in the city, and so I started thinking about wreaths and that started with these wreath paintings.
I can’t think unless I’m writing. I mean, I never really thought of myself as a writer; it was more about just getting the ideas out. One of the first things I did publicly in New York was write a short piece about male bonding for REALLIFE Magazine. It was done in a very minimalist style.
NM: Was there any difference for you between publishing something of yourself in that way and, say, being in a band or performing?
KG: Well, this was actually before I was in a band, and it was just because I didn’t have a gallery or any place to show work. That was also the reason for starting Design Office, doing something in someone’s apartment because there weren’t galleries for young unknown artists or people who just weren’t part of the group.
The writing found other ways into performance. One of the first bands I had, CKM, with Stanton Miranda and Christine Hahn, was formed for a Dan Graham performance, and it only existed for that one show. I took lyrics from ads for clothes or from Cosmopolitan magazine. One issue had an entire text on the back, written in first person, that I adopted for a lyric.
So I guess I really do like ad copy.
NM: Yeah, because you can shift it around and misuse it.
KG: Reappropriate it.
NM: And I wouldn’t say that there is necessarily reappropriation in your paintings, but there are certain gestures that seem like a misuse of somebody else’s signature.
NM: I RECENTLY GOT THE BOOK Zipperkeeper 2015  from the artist Megan Francis Sullivan. It’s an irrational pocket calendar she made for people to use. There are a few pictures in it. And one of them is a picture of you, and you’re sitting on the floor and there is a typewriter and you’re wearing knee-high boots and your hands are on the typewriter and you’re looking out of the frame away from the typewriter. The whole thing is so offhand.
I looked it up and it’s credited to Isa Genzken, from around 1980, and I think of her rather as someone who is the subject of photographs, or as somebody who photographs buildings. And then that got me thinking: There are so many other artists that you’re related to or work with, and yet your relationships are not necessarily collaborative; what I mean to say is, they’re not about being productive. There isn’t an immediately quantifiable relationship, and so you operate at so many different intersections, which I think is really refreshing, especially given a situation in which people cling more and more to categories they want to identify with, or hew so closely to an idea of a career or a position and how it is defined. It actually surprised me when you said earlier that you felt like you were always outside the art world, because you clearly bring the art world into your world in whatever way you need or want it to be there.
KG: That was a fun time with Isa, because it was a real exchange, and we took pictures of each other. How do you feel about interviews as an artist?
NM: Ideally they’re a kind of exchange, too, but it makes a big difference whom you’re talking to and why.
KG: Do you think that artists are naturally skeptical and want to protect their train of thought from a larger audience?
NM: No, I don’t think artists naturally are. I think that many artists are quite dutiful in their relationship to supply and demand.
KG: I don’t know. I find that to be more about aspiration. Of course I already have a public. But I’m always a little bit skeptical about that. My natural inclination is to not want to do that.
NM: Because you don’t want to be a content provider?
KG: Yeah, exactly.
NM: But I think within art publications, the kind of content that must be provided for the art worldit’s almost the same thing. Recently, somebody asked me what I wanted people to take away from my work. I said very bluntly that I have no interest in being effective in that way.
KG: It seems more and more like there is an expectation for artists to do interviews or to promote their shows.
NM: So to you that’s all kind of familiar territory.
KG: It is in music, but I don’t expect it in the art world.
I’m just curious. If you’re an artist who has a big solo show at MoMA and suddenly you’re put into this whole machine and then you’re immediately seen on a different level, are you suddenly much more limited?
NM: Then you’re in this apparatus and there is only so much you can do?
NM: But given what I know about you and also what I like about your stance and your attitude, wouldn’t you read that situation and then know where to stick the knife in? How to use that situation and make it do something else? That can be a very faint gesture or it can be very radical. But there has got to be someI don’t want to use a word like responsibilitybut a kind of activity, a way of pushing back that creates a different shape.
KG: Well, I’ve always been fascinated by Bob Dylan interviews. . . . I think I’m just going to start quoting him [laughter].
NM: I don’t think I’ve ever read a Bob Dylan interview.
Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band, was released February 24 by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Nick Mauss’s solo exhibition at 303 Gallery in New York runs through April 11.