Over the past ten years, the Brooklyn-based artist Lisi Raskin has explored fear, cold-war tensions, and sites that rely on nuclear power in her works. Here she speaks about the process of making Armada, a new installation on view until June 21 at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin.
THE “MOBILE OBSERVATION” SERIES began over a year ago. The first part of the project, Command and Control, was commissioned by Bard College and was exhibited at the Park Avenue Armory for the ADAA fair in 2008. Following that, I was commissioned by Bard to take a road trip to expand the series, and I traveled to several sites near Tucson: the Titan Missile Museum, the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico––which is the site of the 1945 Trinity nuclear test––and a large empty lot of airplane carcasses, called the Bone Yard, whose proper name is the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group. Armada, my work at the Blanton, is based on the Bone Yard.
I wanted to use my road trip as source material as the “Mobile Observation” projects unfolded. Normally, I make site-specific works within institutions and galleries, but this project also includes an element of working with the landscape and a question of how to engage space in a more direct way. When Risa Puleo, a curator at the Blanton, approached me, I was beginning to think about the landscape of the Bone Yard. The project emerged pretty organically and intuitively once I visited Austin and decided to use her backyard as a production site and to make the work with a team of local assistants there. I knew I wanted to create a telephone line from my inspiration in Risa’s suburban yard in 2009 to my initial inspiration in a backyard in 1984 in Coral Gables, Florida, when I first became aware of the possibility of war, nuclear annihilation, and these kinds of test spaces.
There were several experiences I tried to conjure when I was working on the installation. For instance, I remembered sitting in my van in the Bone Yard: I looked toward Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and there was a huge plume of gray and black smoke that fighter jets were flying into; they were basically running an intense drill. Another day, I parked the van next to a chain-link fence, and it turned out that I was directly under the flight path of the pilots who were out for the day’s exercise. After lunch that day, I parked my van, serendipitously, again under the path as they were coming back.
I connected these memories to other, very specific visceral moments. When I was a kid, I used to sit on the hood of my mother’s Chevrolet Malibu Classic and look up at the sky and watch the planes go by. I would imagine what it would be like if I were to witness a bomb falling down from one of the planes. Because a backyard, or a suburban site, was the first location that served as a backdrop while these fears and desires developed within me, it was motivation to use Risa’s backyard as a kind of memory space.
Working in her backyard, however, created an interesting duality regarding site-specificity and project identity within the actual museum itself, which is not like a kunstverein, or P.S. 1, where I’ve previously had installations. There are nineteenth-century landscape paintings in the Blanton that we had to be very careful around. Although I wanted to take over the project-space room completely, there were things I had to be cognizant of, like fire codes. This was new for me. Using the backyard as the space of production allowed me to leap over the rules of the institution so my creative process went unhindered.
While I had memories, drawings, and notes with which to work, once I began on Armada I realized that I didn’t really want to control or deal with any of the preconditioned ideas I had about what the project might look like. Instead, I wanted to try to abstract it and forget about the idea that abstraction always references something. I thought about the wings and nose of the airplanes and how to make shapes that might communicate those elements, but I was able to dispense with this tendency pretty early on. I was also playing with how I could tweak the scale of such massive planes by using cheap materials. I made two twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot paintings, which is something I’ve never done before.
I rejected all my impulses that might have made me treat the work as though it were precious. The construction was direct, improvised, and intentionally precarious so that if there were accidents on the way to the museum––we transported it in an open truck––I could incorporate them. I think this element added another layer to the project, and in a way it was also an avenue to explore and utilize failure.
Left: Carlson/Strom, Meadowlark, 2008, still from a six-channel color video, 7 minutes 30 seconds. Right: Carlson/Strom, Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg, and Moore, 2007, still from a single-channel color video, 4 minutes 30 seconds.
Choreographer Ann Carlson and video artist Mary Ellen Strom, frequent collaborators, recently created a six-channel video installation, Meadowlark, for their exhibition at the DeCordova Museum, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, on view until May 17. Here, Strom discusses their new work, as well as their use of spectacle and humor to provide spaces of reflection.
MEADOWLARK BEGAN, AS MOST WORK DOES, as a research project. The project involved the painter and illustrator Frederic Remington and his method of circulating imagery. In his painting Indians Simulating Buffalo , Remington depicts a pair of Native Americans on horseback disguising themselves with buffalo hides. While this was not a practiced hunting method, the image reinforces the myth of the sneaky Indian. We worked with video and performance artist Bently Spang, who is Northern Cheyenne, to dismantle Remington’s implied imperialist ideologies regarding both Native Americans and the impact of white American expansionists on the land. Bently and Ann are seen on horseback, masquerading as buffalo, speaking to each other in sign language, while a meadowlark sings in the background. The camera pans across a decimated landscape, an ecosystem transformed by one hundred years of unconsidered exploitation of natural resources. Although at first glance the landscape appears sublime, with a deeper look the viewer can see that it is threatened land, impacted by drought, clear-cutting, fossil-fuel mining, beetle infestation, and forest fires.
The work is presented as a ring of six screens; we were interested in mirroring the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century cycloramas that were about sensationalism—the San Francisco earthquake, the Galveston flood, the Chicago fire—but our hope was to create a contemplative space. It becomes about ways to bring the contemporary story of this landscape to urban museumgoers—not unlike Remington.
Meadowlark shares concerns with a site-specific work, Geyser Land, that took place in 2003 between Livingston and Bozeman, Montana. The spectators were on a passenger train. We projected video onto the mountain rock faces that the viewers would see. The work put the spectator in a tourist position. Geyser Land also shares ideas and meanings with Four Parallel Lines , in the current exhibition. Four Parallel Lines is a collaboration with four men from Guatemala who work as day laborers. Its point of departure is Walter De Maria’s Mile-Long Drawing . Our video was shot on a beach. The men draw four lines in the sand, and as they do this, over the course of eight minutes, the sea washes their lines away. That project is shown in tandem with a video called Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg, and Moore , which is a work made in collaboration with four lawyers. This work features the lawyers performing a movement and vocal score that references their work and lives.
For me, art-historical references function like a fantasy collaboration: a conversation with other artists, some of whom are alive, some of whom are dead, some of whom I am awed by or highly suspicious of, some who broke ground both figuratively and literally, as with De Maria. I am fundamentally collaborative in what I do, whether it’s with Ann or day laborers or members of the Northern Cheyenne nation or a group of lawyers—or with animals. Our work Madame 710 , a three-channel installation, is on one level a conversation with Joseph Beuys’s I Like America and America Likes Me  and on another level about production and consumption. In Beuys’s work, he had an interesting but contested relationship with a coyote. In Madame 7-10, Ann attempts communication with an industrial dairy cow named Gerri. Throughout, there is a Beckettian approach to a physicalized language: an attempt to think or to dance outside ideology. Working to build a substantive relationship with the animal, seeking intersections and likenesses, the human ultimately cannot be released from her position of consumer.
Left: Agnès Varda, Les Veuves de Noirmoutier (The Widows of Noirmoutier), 2004, still from a 35-mm film, 9 minutes 30 seconds. Right: View of Les Veuves de Noirmoutier, Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, 2006.
The inimitable director Agnès Varda is widely known for her films––the French New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) and The Gleaners and I (2000) are just a few. Here she speaks about her exhibition at Harvard’s Sert Gallery in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, which opens March 12. Concurrent with the exhibition, the Harvard Film Archive will devote a week of programming to her groundbreaking films, including her most recent undertaking, The Beaches of Agnès (2008), which opens at Film Forum on July 1.
THIS IS MY FIRST INSTALLATION in the United States, and it makes me very happy. Dominique Bluher, a lecturer in Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies program, was in France in 2006 for a seminar about my work, and she saw the major solo exhibition I had at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, which featured seven or eight installations. She decided to show one of them, my 2004 work The Widows of Noirmoutier, at the Carpenter Center, and things began to fall into place.
The exhibition in Paris was titled L’ile et Elle (The Island and She) and was completely inspired by and shot on the island of Noirmoutier, which is located off the west coast of France, not far from Nantes where my husband Jacques Demy shot Lola . We spent time lot of time there near the ocean in a windmill that worked until the 1960s. Jacques passed away in 1990, but I still go there with my children and my grandchildren. Since this is an island with many sailors and fishermen there are, perhaps even more than elsewhere, a lot of widows around, including myself. I started to think about how I could express and share that.
In the middle of the installation, there is a 35-mm film of women on the beach, all dressed in black and moving around a large table. Fourteen monitors surround this film, and there are fourteen seats in front of the installation. On each of the seats there is a set of headphones. You can only listen to one video at a time, and in each a widow speaks to you for about three or four minutes.
It’s very touching because the widows are all very different from one another. One is an older woman who has been a widow for over twenty years, another one has just lost her man recently and she’s still very upset by it. All the women speak about loss and missing their husbands. I filmed their faces and sometimes their beds, or their hands holding an image of their late-husband. I wanted to be alone with them while filming to make them feel more confident.
The videos are looped, so perhaps after listening to one widow, you’ll take another chair and another set of headphones and listen to another. Viewers tend to pass the headphones and switch chairs frequently; you get the sense you’re listening to one woman alone in the room, but you’re really in a group of people the entire time. If you don’t put on the headphones or sit down, then the fourteen videos just appear to be silent and you don’t hear anything but the ocean and a violin from the central film.
For this installation, and in all of my installations, I have tried to create another way for an audience to watch films. I plan to make many more video installations in the future. I’m about to have another exhibition in Séte, a city in the south of France. I’m creating three works for that show. I’ve been making films for so long, for over fifty years now, but I really think I have two paths of work––cinema and installation. They overlap, of course. My installations use films and, one might say, my recent film––Les Plages d’Agnès––is a kind of installation.
Left: Flyer for an exhibition hosted by the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT in November, 1974. Right: View of the The Sun as Error, work-in-progress.
The artist Shannon Ebner is perhaps best known for her photographic and sculptural works that investigate language and its meaning. Ebner’s The Sun as Error, a book published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, coordinated by Dexter Sinister, and distributed by RAM Publishers, will have its New York launch at White Columns on March 6.
IN SEPTEMBER 2007, Charlotte Cotton, the head of the Photography Department at LACMA, commissioned me for a book. She didn’t offer any specific parameters—it could be anything.
I approached Dexter Sinister [design collaborators David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey] about working with me on the project. I was excited about their method of working as designers—it was expansive, not simply about the organization of language. What they do is not always so easy to define, and I was intrigued by their idea of “design as thinking,” as I have come to think of photography in similar terms. We began with simple questions: Why does this book need to exist? What format should it take? How can its format be a reflection of the ideas that compose whatever it is that we end up making? Let’s just say that very little was taken for granted.
We had some meetings and loose conversations starting two years ago. I went into the project with more ideas about what I didn’t want for the book: I didn’t want something that would simply showcase work of mine that had already had a certain amount of exposure; I wanted the book to be more of an open-ended reading of the work. Monographs are great, but I didn’t want something that straightforward.
We met in July of last year and sat around a Los Angeles studio for five days. We bought a roll of fax paper and brought books to the studio that we thought were related to previous conversations we had had over the course of the year, and we just began reading and talking, cutting things out, making photocopies, and taping materials onto the paper—assembling a scroll from the various source materials. Out of this came something like the “guts” of the book. At the end of the day, we would go through the scroll trying to articulate the reasons we had selected certain images, passages, quotes, and diagrams. To my surprise, I ended up with a renewed faith in the images themselves and eventually did away with all the clipped language. My hope was that the ideas that had initially compelled us were embedded in the images—it was just a matter of finding a way to present the material so it would reflect these ideas.
Later that summer, in August, while looking around the photo section of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, I found these amazing practical-photography textbooks that directly related to diagrams I had selected from Ansel Adams’s books and placed on the scroll back in July. Also, Stuart had shown me this beautiful old style manual that got me thinking further about the systems we use for organizing and understanding the arrangement of language and photographic imagery. So by the time I hit Powell’s, although the idea was still vague, I was very curious about looking through these old books with illustrational diagrams and how they might function within a system of hieroglyphics. The book includes a number of these diagrams juxtaposed with my own photographic work. (I didn’t make any new work expressly for the book.) And once I got back to Los Angeles, I would spend hours roaming the various libraries at USC looking through books for diagrams on optics, handwriting analysis, Indian sign language, hypergraphics, optical illusions, and cartography, not to mention all of the diagrams that did not survive the rather rigorous editing process!
I guess the last thing I’ll say here is a bit about the persistent use of the asterisk. It is one of several recurring motifs in the book, but it is probably the most prominent. The origin of this particular asterisk is from an essay by David called “This Stands as a Sketch for the Future,” which he produced as part of a one-year project as a research affiliate at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. The essay traces the legacy of the graphic designer Muriel Cooper. Cooper was the first design director of the MIT Press, and she is the person who designed the brilliant MIT Press logo and the Bauhaus book, among other things, of course. She was also a visionary educator, and while at MIT she cofounded the Visible Language Workshop in 1975, which was a teaching and production facility in the School of Architecture. Within David’s essay there is a reproduction of a poster for an MIT fellow’s traveling exhibition, and the asterisk is the graphic symbol that is featured in the poster’s design. You could easily say that I have become obsessed with this graphic symbol, not only because of the beauty of its form but also because it is the symbol for elsewhere. It literally redirects you, and as a reader it continually repositions or reorients you. You could say that Muriel Cooper is the patron saint of this book.