Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield, Craig Owens: An Interview, 1984, video, black-and-white, sound, 80 minutes.


APRIL 16, 2017 AT 2:24 PM EST

Dearest Bruce,

Today, a resurrection. 

On Tuesday, as you recommended, I went to Light Industry to see Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield’s 1984 conversation, or portrait of, Craig Owens, part of Video Data Bank’s incredible interviews with artists and writers. This was some six years before he died, age thirty-nine, of—I rehearse the intolerable boilerplate—AIDS-related complications. 

Eighty black-and-white minutes. Owens sits in a director’s chair in front of a makeshift backdrop—the zigzag of a wrinkled moving blanket. He talks and talks, always smoking. Or… he’s not really smoking, just lighting cigarette after cigarette and then mostly letting the lit cigarette sit on his lap so that the smoke blooms up into the frame. It looks like his crotch is on fire. The camera sits still, sometimes zooming in on his face, then pulling out to show his dark, formica sweater. The blanket and the sweater and the video’s poor contrast makes his face so white. 

It’s a real performance. We start in early childhood, when Owens is ten or eleven years old, reading Variety in isolation in suburban Pennsylvania. I guess this was 1960 or so? He draws designs for houses for TV stars, including one for Gale Storm, which he sends to her. 

More bio: His father takes him to New York to see the Sound of Music. He’s accepted to Haverford College as a junior in high school. He directs many plays. In May of 1970 he’s working on a Noël Coward comedy when the US invades Cambodia. The National Guard murders four students at Kent State. He goes to Washington, but “politicization never happened for me.” External events annoy him. All that matters is the work.

He moves to New York in 1971, does theater. He sees the stage version of Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who…

He hears about Robert Wilson, Vito Acconci. His passion for commercial theater flags. 

For six months, out of financial desperation, he moves to Philadelphia to work at the Al Paul Lefton advertising agency. Another Rainer twist: He comes across—how?—Annette Michelson’s germinal 1974 Artforum article on Rainer. This, he thinks, is serious criticism. He begins to read Roland Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Marcuse. An “older gentleman” encourages him to go to grad school. He applies to Columbia, NYU, and CUNY’s Grad Center, choosing the last simply because they let him join midyear. 

The cranky coincidences of an education.

All this Rainer, Michelson stuff: I feel interpellated.

He takes classes with Leo Steinberg. Skepticism becomes admiration. Rosalind Krauss joins the faculty. Owens swoons. Krauss is beginning to carve her path out of formalism. A year later Douglas Crimp joins as a student. October dawns.

Owens wants to write about performance. He thinks he can bring his new critical tools to bear on emerging live-art disciplines. He writes a paper for class on Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. He’s surprised when Krauss asks if he’d like to expand it for “the magazine.” This becomes “‘Einstein on the Beach’: The Primacy of Metaphor,” published in October’s fourth volume (autumn, 1977). (Also in this issue are Krauss’s “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America [Part 2],” Michael Snow’s “Notes for Rameau’s Nephew,” and Amy Taubin’s “Doubled Visions,” on Michael Snow.)

Looking back, from 1984, Owens considers this period with amused embarrassment. He’s writing what he calls “footnotes” to Krauss’s own writing. “I was not equipped at that point,” he says, to tackle something like Einstein on the Beach, calling his first essay an “overinflated… pretentious piece.” 

The Octoberites are all “carrying the torch of serious criticism,” writing only for one another. The readers, if there are any, are just eavesdropping. At this time, he says, the frame of art was not an issue for him. It didn’t matter, for instance, that Einstein on the Beach played not at some downtown theater but at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Things change when he becomes an editor at Art in America in… 1980? At October everything was taken care of by public funds. Suddenly he’s thrown into the same market conditions as the artists about whom he’s writing. He begins to consider the purpose of intellectual work, whose interests that work serves. His new mandate: “To analyze the position of your own work vis-à-vis the channels through which it must pass to reach an audience.”

He begins to think of criticism as existing alongside the work. You find work with which you feel solidarity, and “the critical task is to extend… amplify… develop new terms.” He begins to see the categorical debates around “modernism” and “postmodernism” as “diversionary tactics, to take intellectual energy away from feminism.” (Race doesn’t enter his picture.)

He zooms out. Art doesn’t “change the world—it changes the terms. If we get hopeless, we’ll let other people do it.” Success is being able to “responsibly set the agenda.” 

If he had lived, where else he would have zoomed?

The punchline: at the end, a credit for the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Eternal returns.

I begin with a mouthful. But I’ll swallow all but this question: For whom do you write? 

DVx

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Work/Travail/Arbeid, 2016. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 29, 2017. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.


APRIL 16, 2017 AT 9:49 PM PST

I don’t want to talk with food in my mouth, and you’ve given me a lot to chew on, despite a single question.

Race hasn’t entered his picture, but “gay men,” whether “outlaws in feminism” or not, haven’t been articulated yet either, as an impulse for theoretical pursuit. 

Yet with great dexterity and purpose, he recounts how, after repeatedly turning over the sheets of his quickly finished, elementary-school writing assignments to sketch designs for dresses, teachers and parents tried to divert his talent for fashion toward a butcher design endeavor: architecture. 

Talk about feeling interpellated!  

I’m not sure I can answer your question (for whom do I write?) with any resolve, especially right now. 

Am I wrong to interpret Owens’s fatigue and/or resignation (?) at always responding, having to respond, as similar to Barthes’s coming to terms with his long-harbored desire to write a novel? 

Does “being able to ‘responsibly set the agenda’ ” equal abandoning a certain mode or genre of writing for another?

However much alongside culture any criticism exists, it too often must be in response to a work. While that seems plainly obvious, this morning, rewatching Owens end the interview on this topic, I could only nod, slowly, in agreement, mouthing the words, I feel you, dude

The frame was invisible. He learns not only to see the frame but also to draw attention to the frameworks that support it. 

I’ve extolled to you how enthralling I found Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Work / Travail / Arbeid at MoMA a few weeks ago, the involutional forces of her choreographic endeavor, one that manages to be roomy, inviting, able to accommodate or, rather, unite, the movements of passersby as counterpoint to not only those of her corps but also of her musicians, who wind through the space of the dance as complement to the dancers’ transit. The dance and Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum, in which the musicians play their instruments as percussive things and breath modulators as much as for melody, resonate with one another, sometimes in synch, sometimes discontinuous. While W/T/A seems incredibly “open,” the openness exposes the choreographer’s intense formal assiduity, centrifugal, centripetal, alert to every action, activity, gesture, and/or stillness of the event. How deliberately but without strenuousness the force field of her choreography clarified when and where and how rapidly any audience “in the way” as well as part of the dance would have to move and when and where they could just be darted around or leapt over by her dancers. 

At what point and how does the fact that Anne Teresa is the Baroness De Keersmaeker become critically or theoretically useful?

After watching the dance for an hour-and-a-half in the Atrium, I left—hearing the music reverberating, spying it from other vantages—saw Seurat’s Evening, Honfleur, 1886, with its dazzling painted frame, extending the artist’s pursuits beyond the strictly pictorial, and wondered about the conversation he and the Baroness could have about frames, frameworks, duration, luminosity, points, vibration, atomization, futures.

Something meteorological, the systems of what they put into motion.

Is it like a maelström?

Like a tempest?

“If I negate powdered wigs, I am still left with unpowdered wigs,” Marx stated, c. 1843.

A little later, Molly Nesbit replied: 

“There must be another response besides negation.

A maelström is not a death.” [Midnight: The Tempest: Essays, 81]

We are in the midst and mess of a male storm, one which might take the entire planet down; nevertheless, Madame Nesbit instructs us: “Try to think of the maelström as a swim.”

With her last book, The Pragmatism in the History of Art [2013], Madame left us climbing and hanging in a large tree in Poughkeepsie, New York, courtesy of Gordon Matta-Clark—who was known to tango, darkly, on the piers—his Tree Dance. She left us, too, with this question, which seems apropos, given the Baroness, evenings at Honfleur, extension, social questions: “What if there were no limits to aesthetics?”

“The Tree Dance,” she informs, “was an event infiltrated by other events: the weekend beforehand 500,000 people had marched on Washington to protest the Vietnam War; students were occupying the administration offices in Vassar’s Main Building; in June the New York Times would publish the Pentagon Papers detailing the secret history of the American buildup in Vietnam. On May 31st, the Times would quote a letter from Gordon Matta-Clark urging an artist boycott of the São Paulo Bienal because ‘it is now common knowledge that freedom of speech survives nowhere in Brazil.’ ”

The past would seem, still, to speak fluently to our possible future.

Trisha Brown, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970. Performance view, 80 Wooster Street, New York, April 18, 1970. Joseph Schlichter. Photo: Carol Goodden.


APRIL 17, 2017 AT 1:29 PM EST

Dear Sir,

You’re playing the dance card. 

Tempesting me. 

Tree Dance—a tea dance for heterosexuals?—was made for an exhibition, “26 x 26,” organized at Vassar in solidarity with Lucy Lippard’s “26 Contemporary Women Artists” at the Aldrich Museum. It was the most beautiful way for Nesbit to end The Pragmatism.  It took my breath away. I couldn’t really believe it.

I also couldn’t really believe that it was Gordon Matta-Clark we were talking about. Because it sounds like it should be a Trisha Brown dance. 

Nesbit leaves a clue: “[Matta-Clark] had asked Carol Goodden, his new partner, herself a dancer with Trisha Brown, to find him some people for this dance that was not one exactly, meaning it was not to be explicitly choreographed.” [The Pragmatism in the History of Art, 84]

How much of the work is “finding some people”? 

What is a dance that is not one exactly?

Matta-Clark’s Tree Dance, May 1, 1971, was barely a year after the April 18, 1970 premiere at 80 Wooster Street of Brown’s Floor of the Forest, in which dancers climb across—rather, through—a horizontal net of clothing, dressing and undressing themselves as they move. (The restaging of this work in Documenta 12 [2007] was one of the signal moments in the reawakening of a certain art-world fondness for dance.) At the same time, Goodden participated in the premiere of Brown’s Leaning Duets, 1970, in which pairs of dancers hold onto opposite ends of a rope, lean away from each other, and walk, balancing against each other’s feet. These are the early days of the Equipment Dances—Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (April, 1970), Walking on the Wall (March, 1971)—one of the most thrilling and still-underthought moments in art-making. 

I want (another!) book about Brown. 

I want a book about Goodden.

Why have there been no great women artists?

“What if there were no limits to aesthetics?”

It’s a beautiful question, and one applied to some more than others. 

But it’s certainly an ideal toward which I aspire. 

In the end, Matta-Clark’s Tree Dance surrendered to a thunderstorm. The maelström has its own priorities. His nondance broke up. From what we can gather, this was part of the plan. And so becomes the stuff of legend.

This is different, of course, from the maelström (the Gale Storm?) of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Work / Travail / Arbeid, a choreography so explicit, so rigorously rehearsed, that it can adapt to the deluge without compromise.

It makes its own weather. 

I’ve seen it now in two places—at the Wiels, in Brussels, and in the Museum of Modern Art’s Atrium. (It also traveled to the Pompidou and Tate Modern.) At Wiels, the dance took over two adjacent galleries, the dancers and musicians moving between. At MoMA, the dance conspired with the Atrium to open new vistas. You could be on the same plane as the dancers, broken up by them, or you could go upstairs and watch from above. At every angle, the dance sets its own agenda. 

Break away to one of my favorite chapters in Nesbit’s new book, Midnight: The Tempest Essays, “Without Walls,” an expanded version of an essay she did for Artforum in April 2003. She’s thinking about Malraux’s The Voices of Silence. “The problem under consideration here—how to find forms that can address the vastness—has a history that is and is not an art history, that is and is not American.” [118, emphasis mine]

What is this vastness? What counts as American?

“Solitude is a strong position… the position to refuse,” Nesbit quotes Godard in another favorite chapter, “History Without Object.” [100]

How to become a figure in the vastness, Nesbit asks. 

I choose dance to connect vastness and solitude.

What do you choose?

DVx

Pages 122-3 of Molly Nesbit’s Midnight: The Tempest Essays (Inventory Press: 2017).


APRIL 17, 2017 AT 10:58 PM PST

Your question jetés to life, how to live, in a world often increasingly immiserating.

The questions of life and living, their complication by livelihood, their imitations, organize Midnight. Or as Nesbit puts it: “With whom will one walk?” [92] 

Like Godard’s, hers is “a practice in which the ideas become questions, not answers.” [92]

With her tempest, she addresses our concerns in many ways, with many questions, perhaps most directly by way of Albert Béguin, who opened the preface of his book L’Âme romantique et le rêve, in 1936, darkness storming, with a meditation on a very particular question, “Am I the one who is dreaming?” [104]

Madame continues:

A question, he went on to say, with infinite prospects, one which touches on our very reason to live, on the possible choices one makes inside one’s own limits; for it uncovers both the problem of knowing and of poetry. It is one of the few questions which abstract thought cannot satisfy, he felt, because it is the kind of question thrown in one’s face by an undefinable reality, more vast than ourselves and on which we depend so heavily that we refuse it only at the expense of a diminished life. He continued to ask the question about what lives inside our selves at nightfall, no need to put politics there overtly, the times in which this was being written were looming too large in the minds of his readers. Science seemed unable to account for this dreamwork, a theatre of incoherent dancing, poor and aping, a patter in the atoms of one’s own mind, abandoned to an absurd caprice. [104]

The vortex—the vortext—of your ellipsis makes me wonder how that sinuous sentence about solitude is to be read.

Swimming against the current to return to it, reaching into the mist of the ellipsis, I find this sticky goodness:

“Solitude, as Deleuze had rightly remarked, had long been Godard’s private vanishing point. ‘Solitude is a strong position,’ like a right, Godard himself had remarked flatly, ‘The position to refuse.’ ”

Is solitude the state of being refused or is it solitude that allows one a position from which to refuse?  

Of course, it isn’t ever only either/or.

With the help of Deleuze’s response to Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Six Fois Deux, Nesbit reminds us that the philosopher who weathered many plateaus “made a point to mention Godard’s solitary ways, called him one of a kind, a man apart from the usual routes taken by the cinema, and yet… Godard was always a man surrounded, working both with the people on his crew and with the worlds that lived in his mind,” making for a “multiple, populous solitude that was really a crowd bound to the outside world not by a heartbeat anymore but by a stammer.” [91] 

It would be remiss, if not grotesque, to forget to state the obvious: One of the ones with whom Godard walks is Miéville, and she agrees to walk with him, being more than an accomplice, coconspirator, or muse, but an artist in her own right. See not only her films We’re All Still Here (1997) and After the Reconciliation (2000), but her sly preface to Godard’s Hail, Mary (1985)—his study of life’s pulsation and plenty, wildlife—The Book of Mary (1985).

They walk AND in AND (“AND being the word upon which relations can be expressed” [92]), and they’ll extend his methods of montage to “upset everything and everyone’s relation to everyday life.” [88]
 
The heart of Midnight homes in on a decade running, roughly from 1975 to 1985, in France with Godard & Miéville, in New York with Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and David Salle.

“Let us say only that by the seventies the irresolution of history itself was apparent in New York. The term postmodern was not needed to see this.” [120]

The group in New York would find “their rhetoric of form” at the movies. Douglas Sirk’s proleptic treatise on so much of what remained long occluded in Pop art, Imitation of Life (1959), would hold particular sway. Nesbit sketches all the film showed: “the dangers that lay in wait for every success and star—the racial segregation festering within integration, the torture of maternal love, the unbridgeable personal costs.” [115]

What does it mean to feel that we are still held in the vice of so much of what Sirk lensed in that opus?

Nesbit beams no small part of her admiration on André Malraux’s The Voices of Silence. “Malraux saw a great threat. It came from the formalisms and professionalism of a modern art culture keeping art from its chief and ancient business, the confrontation with the totality of experience and fate.” [119] 

To begin to confront via aesthetics such totality, Sherman would use thrift culture to refuse “commercial fashion” and its dictates; Levine would employ the internegative as well as the “most impersonal, least theatrical techniques of thrift to bring divinity back” [130]; Lawler would host borrowed light to demonstrate how you “have walked into a situation that has rearranged your own world and made you well aware of it.” For the most part “the new New York art criticism was not concerned with the imitation of life, but only with imitation.”

The debut for some of these techniques were exhibited at “Artists Space in the fall of 1978 in a group show curated by Janelle Reiring,” which assembled Sherman, Lawler, Christopher d’Arcangelo, and Adrian Piper.

The essay “Without Walls” ends with a looking backward. The “interaction being imagined remains personal, full of the trace of internegativity of the old days, as if art might still be something that passed between friends,” but it is now seen to be a thing of the past.

Is it? Does it have to be?

The Artists Space show emblem circled or bull’s-eyed the “A” for anarchy as much as artist. 

Perhaps I’ll anarchize these proceedings a little with some disappearance and/or absence. Nesbit schools the inattentive to keep alert for what is not there. While we’re left almost at the doors of the opening of Metro Pictures and a certain kind of business that won’t be refused, recall the other ways two of the artists in the Artists Space show went. D’Arcangelo, having italicized certain removals to point to social systems and occlusions, would kill himself in 1979. For her part in the Artists Space show, Piper introduced Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma.

In 1983, Piper premieres Funk Lessons at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Her best friend Phillip Zohn dies of AIDS-related encephalitis. After that, her brief biographical précis concludes: “Begins design of poster, Think About It, commemorating 1983 March on Washington. Reads Toni Morrison. Goes dancing regularly and hears live funk bands from Oakland and Los Angeles at Little Orphan Annie’s, Foster City, California. Watches Entertainment Tonight. Sees BrainstormThe Hunger.”

Rather than ask you any of the questions I was going to ask—where do the younger artists of today find their rhetorics of form? do they think about any such rhetoric?—I’ll leave you with another beat and image of 1978, one artist’s form for addressing the vastness:

Sylvester, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), 1978.

APRIL 20, 2017 AT 2:49 PM EST

I’m realing a bit here. 

1. From The Fabulous Sylvester—a disco-catechism that Ryan read years ago and that I read more-or-less by proxy, anecdote by anecdote, communicated relentlessly as we walked around the city as he pushed deeper into the fairy kingdom—one particular episode has long stuck in my head. The artist “first turned forty in 1985, when he was thirty-eight. He wanted to go ahead and get that milestone out of the way while he still looked good. […] Besides, he liked to say, he was timeless.” [243]

2. It might be unsurprising to hear that Piper was the first, or among the first, artists who really mattered to me. I didn’t study art, at least not in school, but when Piper came and spoke to my college, I remember sitting in the auditorium trying to fathom her Funk Lessons and the ways that difference inhabited and took over our bodies, how it inhibited us from moving in certain ways. I remember being embarrassed for all the white college students who couldn’t keep up. 

I could always keep up.

3. Sylvester died in December 1988 of AIDS-related complications, a few months after his forty-first birthday. He left behind instructions for his funeral, held at the Love Center, where he appeared in a red kimono with flaming red hair and red lipstick—less red than peachy-orange, in the end, a small concession to his mother, who thought maybe the red was a bit too much.

He was timeless until he wasn’t. 

Or the time of timelessness was altered—both expanded and contracted—by the plague. 

Timelessness matters most when you have no time.

4. Piper’s The Big Four-Oh premiered in 1988, the same year as her fortieth birthday. (She is a Virgo, like Sylvester.) The installation has a video featuring her, facing a white wall, dancing alone to a selected playlist of funk, salsa, R&B, and rock, including the Rolling Stones’s “Miss You,” as well as a notebook, “forty hardballs,” a “disassembled coat of armor,” and “sealed jars of blood, sweat, tears, piss, and vinegar, respectively.” 

The three-minute clip provided on her website includes voiceover of Piper reading from the journal. I’ve transcribed a small portion, simply because I love it: 

[…] I sweated blood to become myself and not someone else I didn’t like. So many tears for what’s been lost have been wrung out of me I thought I’d drown, parched, in my own grief. Under attack my fangs appear, emitting searing streams of piss and vinegar. I had to get hit in the stomach with a hardball many times before I learned to play the game. Nevertheless my forays into community are stymied by the concrete particularity of these artifacts. I don’t understand their chemical structure, nor the stillness of their lives, and I can’t see all sides of them at once. Embodiments of me, they become themselves; and in visual conjunction they mean other things I didn’t intend and didn’t anticipate. I am inspired by their imperturbability, and rely blindly on my ghost to steer me through the second half of my life with the wisdom and grace stored in unrecollected midnight dreams. I defy you to stop me from dancing.

“Unrecollected midnight dreams” will guide her through the next forty-some years.

Who gets a second-half?  

Who on earth would want to stop Piper from dancing?

6. I hear these lines and trip into the final page of Under the Sign of [sic] (2013), your book, so important to me, when you, or “Pierre Menard” writes, “How do we know when we are really living?” which immediately prefaces the question of why that author (which author?) didn’t “deal with” Sturtevant’s Haring Tag, 1986—how this not-dealing-with also means skipping how Haring Tag “forebodes what of the inappropriable remains.” [314] 

There is the “disappeared,” something left out so that something else may be revealed, and then there is what you can’t “deal with,” the inappropriable remains. 

These inappropriable remains and unrecollected midnight dreams might be a way for us to take Nesbit’s collected Midnight dreams, the periods in French and New York art they so magically chart, to think a way into how “younger artists”—by which I suppose I mean my friends and loved ones—might see their relationships to form, to addressing the vastness.

Ylang Ylang and Vesolo at The Spectrum, Ridgewood, New York, April 15, 2017. Photo: David Velasco.


7. Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, of complications related to AIDS.

On October 30, 2014, I began to take Truvada, not because I needed to, but because for my entire life I had associated sex with death, and I no longer wanted to do so. I continue to feel like those of us who aren’t dying of it are still living with complications related to AIDS. Like somewhere in the time between the “AIDS cocktail” and Truvada-as-PreP, a lot of us kind of stalled out on addressing the vastness.

8. The other night Sam and I went dancing late at a club called The Spectrum. A lot of black and brown and white kids, mostly queer, mostly young, mostly moving splendidly through a haze of cigarette smoke under a canopy of thrifted chandeliers, another beat in the comforting pulse of night-places I’ve phased through throughout my young and then adult life. Something seems different though (and not in the way that every night can feel different), in that it might be among the first clubs I’ve inhabited that feels unhaunted by AIDS. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have a relation to AIDS (impossible), but that its relation goes differently, not AIDS-AND, but AIDS-AND-AND.

9. I emailed Piper the other day to inquire about another, unfinished, dance video she told me about years ago. Coincidence: It’s now done, and she’s made it available, for rental, on her website.

“As if art might still be something that passed between friends.” 

I’m not ready to let go of this line. 

Friends AND…? 

APRIL 21, 2017 AT 10:32 PM PST

[I’m realing a bit here.]

​But isn’t it part of our project to attend to the ruptures in the various dances, realings and reelings, around us?

Nesbit has Godard cut off Hegel (isn’t it about time?), the filmmaker having little truck with his “grey of philosophy” or his ornithological musing that the “owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk” [103]. Instead, Godard’s “[m]ontage will see to it that no owl, no concept, no saving philosophy will arrive, only a growing rupture in the real.”

One way to convey Midnight’s tempests, their temporally cross-cutting organization, would be to see it as montage.

[2. It might be unsurprising to hear that Adrian Piper was the first, or among the first…]

Funk Lessons, were “staged collaborative performances with large or small groups of people,” that she conducted from “1982 to 1984”; the videotape, Funk Lessons with Adrian Piper, provides a “record of one of the more successful performances.” In her lively “Notes on Funk I-IV,” Piper writes: “My immediate aim in staging the large-scale performance (preferably with sixty people or more) was to enable everyone present to

        GET DOWN AND PARTY. TOGETHER.”

Inspiring to learn that she also conducted more intimate versions of her lessons. To wit:

I would have people over to dinner, or for a drink, and, as is standard middle-class behavior, initially select my background music from the Usual Gang of Idiots (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.). I would then interpose some funk and watch people become puzzled, agitated, or annoyed, and then I would attempt to initiate systematic discussion of the source of their dismay... This usually included listening to samples of funk music and analyzing their structures, content, and personal connotations for each listener, in a sympathetic and supportive atmosphere. Occasionally, it also included dance lessons…

N.B.: When conducted in Los Angeles, Funk Lessons went down at the Women’s Building, 1727 North Spring Street, March 3, 1984, billed by the artist as a “collaborative experiment in cross-cultural transfusion”—highlighting “Music Appreciation” and “Social Dancing.”
                                                                                 
[Sylvester] was timeless until he wasn’t.

Or the time of timelessness was altered—both expanded and contracted—by the plague.

Timelessness matters most when you have no time.]

​Or he now can return in unexpected ways, not ghosting but coursing through the mainstream in surprisingly powerful ways, i.e., there’s a lot of Sylvester in Titus Andromedon, the character played with such gusto by Tituss Burgess, written with such verve by Tina Fey, in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. See his “Lemonading” in full-on homemade Bae regalia​ down a New York street!

[4. Piper’s The Big Four-Oh premiered in 1988…]

​I saw The Big Four-Oh at the Walker the last time I was in Minneapolis. What a revelation! Stop her dancing at your peril! But, as you put it, “Who on earth would want to do that?” The piece connects so deeply to Funk Lessons, a private tutorial rather than a seminar or lecture, which, as Piper writes, was itself a way to confront the “ignorance and xenophobia that surround the aesthetic idiom of black working-class culture” and that have “affected the audience’s comprehension of my performance work since 1972, when I did the Aretha Franklin Catalysis piece on the streets of New York…”

I had the once-in-a-lifetime luck to watch Simone Forti take in The Big Four-Oh. Her response: “She’s a really good dancer.” Takes one to know one.

[I don’t know why I think so, but these inappropriable remains and unrecollected midnight dreams might be a way…]

Remains functions, funkily (I can only hope) as both a noun and a verb.

We’d agreed to hold off reading the last section of Midnight until we were deep in the stank of our convo. I read it (“The Port of Calls”) this afternoon. Roughly a third of the way through the text—which was written as much, or even more so, in response to 9/11 as for Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11—there is this bit of astonishing synchronicity:

When pressed to give a form to the life she saw in New York, Jane Jacobs chose dance. She described deliveries, school students en route, shopkeepers setting up wares, taxis taking the businessmen away and back, the lunches in taverns, fire engines, drunks, a little boy sitting on a stoop to learn English. In the minds of others, these forms were not exempt from art. Merce Cunningham, for example, has often spoken of walking as being full of the movements, individual, small and large, from which dance could come. But Cunningham’s dances existed, so to speak, on a sidewalk where others worked too. He and John Cage collaborated on many dance productions in such a way that the music and the dance exist side by side, not conceived together, but like two walkers, each moving along together and at their own pace. [193]

[8. [Spectrum] might be among the first clubs I’ve inhabited that feels unhaunted by AIDS. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have a relation to AIDS, impossible, but that its relation goes differently, not AIDS-AND, but AIDS-AND-AND.]

​Let art be a way of unhaunting. Shall I say that I believe Nesbit wishes the conclusions of her book to spill “into the infinite” [201]? She rallies us to embody knowledge (Piper’s honey jars of blood, sweat, tears, piss, and vinegar) as much as to remain alive to what exists between bodies, dancing or walking down the street, Lemonading or Aretha Franklining. “That might perhaps,” she uses Deleuze, “be the defining characteristic of art, this business of finding infinity and giving it back. Was this the plan for good life? […] Something was coming from the nothing. It seemed to inhabit the space between people.” [201] ​

She’s a really good dancer.

[“As if art might still be something that passed between friends.”

I’m not ready to let go of this line.]

​Who on earth would want to let go of this line?​

Why on earth would anyone wish to let it go?

[Friends AND…?]

​No partying, no getting down together, without some expanded/expanding ampersand of friendship.​ 

Umbrella for the storm:

Netflix ad for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, February 13, 2017.

MAY 21, 2017 AT 1:30 PM EST

A month goes by. Some travels (for art, in Europe).

Scatter art.

I’m back in time to see the opening of the Rauschenberg exhibition at MoMA. The show is a holiday; it’s “professional” in the ways I like, masterful but also sly and adventurous, cueing us to track the ampersands of getting down together in (a supposedly bygone?) New York. The institution working healthily to do the memory-work we ask of it.

It’s good to be back in New York. I don’t feel the need to look backward at it, even as it’s refreshing to have its past honored, a reminder of what has happened and thus can happen rather than a monument to our exhaustion.

Some things I think about now that I’ve read Nesbit’s final chapter, written after 9/11, around the time that I moved to New York.

I recognize her city aflame. The danger of the market, of marketing, persists. That “Pepsi-Cola” thing, Duchamp’s warning to artists obsessed with branding and integration. “There was still the danger of Pepsi-Cola,” Nesbit writes, “still the vacant lot, the piece of string, the memory of a writer’s phrase, the vaporized world of cubes. Difficult to subsume all that into the single horizon of publicity, difficult to call it all entertainment or fashion, impossible to contract it into the low horizon of expectation targeted by most marketers, the view of the world seen from the top down by a fifteen-year old’s eyes. Difficult to see all places as non-places, or modernity as only super-modernity. Difficult to see the city simply as New York.” [203]

(I wonder here only about this perspective on a fifteen-year old’s eyes. Fifteen-year-olds have the best taste in ideas. But I’m a marketer as much as a critic.)  

So much dancing in “The Port of Calls.” Jane Jacobs and her figure of dance as the form for life in the city, her critique of separation; Cunningham’s Walkaround Time and his serendipitous movements across New York’s sidewalks; Rem Koolhaas inviting a “perverse modernist choreography” to describe the junkspace of airports and other schizoid switch-points. (I refer Koolhaas to Charles Atlas’s Ex-Romance [1987], a beautiful film of Karole Armitage dancing with Michael Clark through airport lounges and baggage claims—more convoluted ampersands of friendship. Or to Ryan’s ME3M: A Story Ballet About the Internet, an elaborate twitting of this idea that choreography can articulate a junkspace.) 

Charles Atlas, Ex-Romance, 1987, 16 mm, color, sound, 48 minutes 22 seconds.


Around the time Nesbit is writing “Port of Calls,” the choreographer Sarah Michelson is making her dance Group Experience, which premieres at P.S. 122 in October 2001. (As the towers fall Michelson and her collaborator Parker Lutz are at Materials for the Arts, tracking down the orange carpet that would be added to the risers, attending to every tiny detail, rubbing this seductive attention against the supposed slacker MO of “downtown.”) Group Experience, like all of Michelson’s dances, takes place seriously, which also means with a lot of humor. Place and the people of a place, who are also its audience. She is not an anyspacewhatever artist. 

Our friend Claude Wampler describes the group that Group Experience was for:

They were dancers who were working with everybody and being shared by lots of choreographers, all longtime East Village–type performers. That alone created an audience, just each dancer and all their friends and Sarah having been on the scene. She was involved with lots of work before she started making her own. I think that’s who her audience was, because she was so intrinsic to the lower Manhattan dance world, just by dancing for everyone, working for everyone, helping everyone. Like being in my piece and making out in my shows. I mean, she really was all over the place, like she still is. [Sarah Michelson, 106]

In New York there is the push to be all over the place, to spread yourself thin and then recoil back into your own thing, your art, maybe. The dialectic of street and studio is strong here. I have a theory, maybe a stupid one, that the whole development of what we call “pedestrian” dance emerged from this New York groove, from the collision of sidewalks and dancespace, so peculiar to twentieth-century Manhattan geography. (So many interesting dances to be made amid our twenty-first century Manhattan abandon.)

Nesbit quoting Duchamp on Dada:

It was not intended to be a school, to be—we did not want to say we are a group of people—we were not a group—we were five friends who were having a good time during the war—and I think all these things—that’s the way they are always—even Cubism was not intended to be Cubism when they started, they just painted paintings that were funny to look at and ten years later they were called Cubism…. It just happens what happened in the course of years, and some people gather together and keep those things together and call it a movement or that way. But there is no essential foundation to it that makes it go that way. Because it was a genius who did it. [188]

So strange today to hear the word “genius,” and refreshing, I think. Let’s keep the genius thing going. Let’s keep the Nesbit thing going. I keep on with Group Experience because it’s the one thing in the book I put together on Michelson that I wanted to write about but couldn’t quite. A group experience for a group I was on the cusp of experiencing. Just some geniuses in a moment being together, making something for one another. Or as Nesbit says Deleuze says of that generous arc of art, “finding infinity and giving it back.” [201]

we were not a group…

And yet, the group is—even if that is is only a taste: bitter or sweet.

Avital Ronell: So long as there is something like experience, it is not entirely mine.

I never saw Group Experience, not even a video. Just talk, some publicity shots. There was a lot of different kinds of dancing, from what I understand, but the strongest memory people have from the show is of the performers standing for a very long time, together, in relevé.

Standing together, until they couldn’t any longer.

👯

Page 134 of Molly Nesbit’s Midnight: The Tempest Essays (Inventory Press: 2017).


MAY 22, 2017 AT 5:42 PST

Nesbit tracks and prioritizes so many dialogues—between philosophers, between friends. Confidants, conspirators, we can, about Midnight, foreground “that it is in dialogue too with the words of artists… calling across positions once held. The conclusion spilled into the infinite” [201], which is, of course, no small part of why we wish to be, why we were compelled to be, in dialogue with it.

But finishing the book I was still not ready to harbor in Manhattan. I was not ready to commit to her final image-repertoire of Matthew Barney (Cremaster 3) and Richard Serra (“Torqued Spirals”), among others. Not with fifteen-year-old eyes, but looking back fifteen years on, aren’t these the type of forms, myths, of “masculinity” which assist in leading us to our desolate, bloated state? 

Will New Yorkers ever allow an “art history” other than one that places New York at the center? Beyond tedious, this ongoing east coast/west coast maneuvering—and yet it still dominates too much thinking, too much art history. “Act so that there is no use in a centre,” recalling Gertrude Stein, who was raised in Oakland, California. 

Of course, to be American is deranging. “The pure products of America,” Dr. Williams long ago discerned, “go crazy—.” The poem in which he reminded anyone who cared of that fact, “To Elsie,” prescribes nothing dulcet nor dainty, notices “promiscuity between // devil-may-care men who have taken / to railroading” and addresses us as the “degraded prisoners” we are. Who is Elsie? The doctor’s words course by like a current hard to grasp:    

…reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs—

some doctor’s family, some Elsie
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—

Electric, that anacoluthic leap over the line break from “Elsie” to “voluptuous water,” which disorients yet nevertheless conveys something powerful about Elsie’s body and presence, what she has seen and knows. The poem “to” her, her truth, becomes “about” how much is not witnessed, and what remains to seeing and reporting on what is being seen. Williams concludes his furious, elegiac poem: “It is only in isolate flecks that / something / is given off // No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car.” 

That’s something, that single-word line “something.” To contribute an isolate fleck, this may be our small and yet overwhelming task.

It shouldn’t be a contest, we must outmaneuver such maneuvering, but, proleptic as always, Los Angeles, didn’t it situate so much of our current image-repertoire? In 1992 with the Rodney King case and the uprising that followed, events recapitulated and extended in the O. J. Simpson murder case?

Preparing for her Powerful Reversals at Galerie Hans Mayer in Düsseldorf in 1995, Sturtevant, as Peter Eleey discovered, was confronting these matters as a disturbance in aesthetics. In a draft checklist for the exhibit, Sturtevant, as Eleey writes:

included something described as “Rodney King Tape.” Taken at face value, this entry suggests that the artist might have intended to show the famous broadcast tape, perhaps looped on a monitor in the gallery. The video of five Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King after a car chase on the night of March 3, 1991, shot by amateur videographer George Holliday on his new camcorder, had by then already entered the world of art, having been included in a work by Adrian Piper in 1992 and also featured in the Whitney Biennial in 1993. Given the importance of missing and absent elements in Sturtevant’s work, it is tempting to view the possible inclusion of the video as an idea aligned with Gober’s “lynching” wallpaper, which Sturtevant did not repeat in her installation, and to consider the video as a horrific enactment of that scene.

Material remains. 

Material remains to be thought through.

What does such thinking look like?

I don’t know, but not the already soured, recently au courant mode of abstract expressionism with, as my friend Andy put it this morning, “nothing to express.”

(Sturtevant, circa 1969: “Pop-art [sic] is our new folklore, our sense of nature, it is common property, so I use it and paint on the spot. I am a perfect naturalistic painter.”) 

With her astonishments of language, swift, fluid arguments, Nesbit demonstrates not only the relevance of linguistic relevés, but also of leaps and bounds. Midnight is a book, as so many of the best books are, with which to argue, and, certainly, there will have to be a response to Nesbit, looking east in two directions at once—to that historically imaginary “East” as well as to the east coast—something along the lines of (nodding to the midday glare of film noir, earthquakes, and Gavin Lambert): High Noon: The Slide Area Essays.  

Ours is the time of no shadows. 

As Blanchot anticipated, “Midnight is only a dissimulated noon.”

SEPTEMBER 15, 2017 AT 16:30 PM EST

Act as though the shadows remain.

AIDS-AND-AND.

Then:

Last weekend, on the morning of Saturday, September 9, AIDS killed another brilliant artist, Michael Friedman. He was forty-one.

When he died, our friend who was with him in the hospital said, he looked like “one of those photos.”

I don’t know how to, nor do I want to, find special meaning in this. Meaning isn’t good enough.

Find me on the dancefloor:

Denis Lavant’s final dance in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999).

DVx

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.

David Velasco is editor of artforum.com and of the volume Sarah Michelson (Museum of Modern Art, 2017).

Molly Nesbit’s Midnight: The Tempest Essays is now available from Inventory Press.

Craig Owens: Portrait of a Young Critic, an edited version of Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield’s 1984 interview, is forthcoming from Badlands Unlimited (Spring 2018).