Damon Rich, Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center, 2008. Installation views at MIT Museum, Cambridge, MA. (Photos: Judith M. Daniels)
In late 2008, Damon Rich, an artist, designer, and founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), presented an exhibition at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the possible relationships between finance and buildings. That exhibition will be reprised as Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center at the Queens Museum of Art in New York from May 31 to September 27.
RED LINES HOUSING CRISIS LEARNING CENTER BEGAN as a broad proposal for the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT about risk, and in particular about the rise of risk management as a form of planning. In the past fifteen to twenty years, it seems like planning focused on concrete visions or goals has given way to planning that catalogues the risks to which one is vulnerable—with the goal of preserving and expanding the status quo. This is a bit abstract; for me, focusing on finance and architecture brought the proposal back to earth. How does the notion of financial risk affect the built environment?
Though I trained as an architect, I’m drawn to things that touch architecture but are not buildings. My two previous exhibition projects produced by CUP at the Storefront for Art and Architecture were about building codes (how political demands rendered in laws are expressed in the built environment) and about urban renewal (how ideology is revealed in the distorted use of past policies to justify present actions).
I want to take apart the notion of technical expertise in a democratic context. My exhibitions function as a kind of case study or experiment; each begins with a group of investigators who know little about the subject at hand, acting as stand-ins for the general public. MIT has the number-one-rated urban planning program in the country; it also has a fairly new Center for Real Estate; and, of course, it has the management school, engineers, and theoretical mathematicians. I spoke with many of these experts, attended meetings, visited archives—and from these materials put together an exhibition. While exhibitions are just about the least cost-effective way to organize people politically, for me they contain a set of potentials that the initiatives of a mission-driven nonprofit organization like CUP—mainly school programs and community workshops—often do not. A nonprofit has to be disciplined by measurable outcomes, but an exhibition is a chance to stage a more open-ended encounter in three dimensions, to use abstraction to recontextualize imminent realities.
Another privilege of exhibiting in a gallery or museum is the luxury to say that in examining so complex a topic—which engages real estate brokers, architects, federal regulators, economists, and, of course, the public—you don’t have to subordinate everything to clarity and immediate action. You can dwell on the innumerable internal fissures and contradictions that bear on political contests. Often when I tell people I’m doing a project about foreclosures, financial justice, and housing, they say, “That’s really great!” But I don’t think people should assume an exhibition about foreclosures is inherently good; I hope to encourage engagement and skepticism through the practice of representation.
Every single piece in the show tries to use a specific visual strategy to stage a relationship with the audience. For example, one of the most basic and central ideas to finance is the interest rate. The relationship an interest rate instantiates between a borrower and a lender is an abstract thing, and it’s discussed in a naturalized manner—the interest rate goes up, the interest rate goes down, like the temperature. Yet national mortgage interest rates are nothing but an index of a social relationship between borrowers and lenders. So I built a forty-foot-long plywood barrier that’s cut in the shape of the prime rate; one can see, at about 1980, when the interest rate shoots up, because the barrier itself shoots up to about thirteen feet in height. The mute graph you see on the nightly news hopefully becomes visible and legible in a new way, as containing stories of political and social relationships. Another piece is a series of sixty-six photographs of houses in the Detroit metropolitan area, arranged on metal stands in their actual geographic relationships: One can walk among them and understand housing outcomes: dilapidated neighborhoods on the east side of Detroit; big, brand-new houses in outlying Lyon Township in the western suburbs. I hope it causes people to question what produced this differentiated set of buildings.
The series of public programs is an important part of the show and will feature people who know far more about redlining than I do, even after all the research. Redlining is a visual fiction, a metaphor cleverly crafted to mobilize people into political action. In fact, it is so effective that people today use it in all kinds of ways to stand for the inequities of capitalism—in financing, city services, insurance, even Internet service. But it’s also a slippery concept, as is another that is often used today, “disinvestment.” Both have great explanatory power, but you can’t ever really point to them in action. It’s important to understand these concepts and how they have functioned historically in order to better grapple with the messy process of making change.
Left: Jennifer West, Led Zeppelin Alchemy Film (16mm film dripped with lemon juice, honey, wine, hit with a custard pie, tangerines, flowers, and cucumber—featuring strobe light hair performances by Jill Spector & Jwest), 2007, still from a color film in 16 mm transferred to video, 3 minutes 36 seconds. Right: Jennifer West, Skate the Sky Film (35mm film print of clouds in the sky covered with ink, Ho-Ho’s, and Melon—taped to Tate Turbine Hall ramp and skateboarded over using ollie, kick flip, pop shove-it, acid drop, melon grab, crooked grind, bunny hop, tic tacs, sex change, disco flip—skateboarding performed live for Long Weekend by a bunch of London skaters), 2009. Production still. Pictured: Finn West.
In conjunction with “The Long Weekend” at Tate Modern, the Los Angeles–based artist Jennifer West will premiere a new piece, Skate the Sky Film. Here she talks about her practice of subjecting 16-mm, 35-mm, and 70-mm film to a wide array of substances and the new direction this work has taken her. The festival runs May 22–25; more information can be found here.
THIS PROJECT IS DIFFERENT FOR ME because I’m working within a twenty-four-hour period in London, and part of it will involve a live audience. I’m also going to show a 35-mm print on a 35-mm projector (on a built platform), which is an exhibition format I haven’t used before. I have twelve hundred feet of film of wispy clouds in the LA sky that has been doused with inks and will be taped onto the ramp in the Turbine Hall. Local skateboarders from the London skate scene, many of whom frequent the Undercroft, a skate spot just across the river from the Tate and a byproduct of LA skate culture’s migration to England in the 1970s, will be invited to skate directly over the filmstrips, their wheels marking the film.
One of my ideas for this piece was to bring these skaters the LA sky, since skating is all about catching air anyway. Serendipitously, the assistant projectionist for the screening, the artist and filmmaker Tom Lock, is a longtime skater, so he can both skate and project the film while assisting the main projectionist (and artist), Steve Farrer.
Stuart Comer, one of the curators of “The Long Weekend,” invited me to participate because he saw a relationship between my work and this year’s theme, “Do It Yourself.” The event was inspired by the Arte Povera and post-Minimalist artworks in the Tate’s “Energy and Process” collections exhibition, and Stuart was interested in my use of everyday materials, experiences, and the way I put a pop angle on them. He saw a connection between my work and aspects of Arte Povera, as well as links between Arte Povera and the alchemical approach of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Tony Conrad.
Jennifer West, Nirvana Alchemy Film . . ., 2007
After Stuart sent me photographs of the ramp, which is steep and about 140 feet long, I immediately thought of it as a piece of architecture that would be great to have skateboarders on. I’ve made other films about trespassing in public space––around the HOLLYWOOD sign and in front of David Geffen’s beach house in Malibu. I’m interested in the ways in which culture utilizes public spaces, and particularly how skaters will find any place to use, from park benches to step railings to private pools. I wanted to allow them into this environment, which will be very different for them. I recently saw Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park (2007) and was reminded of the pleasure watching skating and its gracefulness. So much of that film is just about documenting the skaters and the satisfaction of seeing that experience.
Usually, viewers can infer the process behind my works via their literal titles, which list the substances I’ve used to treat the film––like someone riding a motorcycle over the material. The narrative of the process has to be put together like reading a book. For this project, I’ve been thinking about that slippage, as well as the dimension of spectacle. I’m allowing my audience to see how the work has been made, and the very next day they’ll be able to see the film. I’ll also make a zine that will accompany the project.
As for the title of this work, skateboarders have the greatest, most irreverent names for their tricks, such as disco flips, acid drop, tic tacs, bunny hop, melon grab, and sex change. My titles invoke the kinds of substances that are associated with the subject of the work; for example, my film that references the band Nirvana is all about expelling abject elements, and there’s another about riot grrrl music that is covered with sweet things and candy. For this piece, I’ll treat the film with melons and Ho Hos before they skate on it; only the melon will really affect the film because of its organic acidity.
Jennifer West, Rainbow Party Film on 70MM . . ., 2008
The performance will exist the way everything exists in the art world (and the skate world); there will be documentation and people will hear about it. I was thinking about this while watching Yves Klein’s Anthropometries of the Blue Period and Fire Paintings: Two Performances and the spectacle of naked women applying paint to their bodies in front of a group of men wearing suits. Also, while looking at the exhibition “WACK!” I noticed photographs of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll that I had never seen before (not to mention the actual scroll!). Looking at them made me feel as though the scope of the work was larger than what I knew of it. I was also inspired while looking at Dan Graham’s current exhibition at MoCA. I had the opportunity to see firsthand his two-channel film pieces, such as Body Press, which I’ve known for so long and have taught over and over. It struck me that we know artworks in a very specific way—mostly through documents and photographs.
These works, along with Tate making it possible to skate the Turbine ramp, and my attempts to make that performance just as engaging as the film itself, motivated me to make Skate the Sky Film and to try something very new to my practice.
For performance documentation of Skate the Sky Film click here.
Christopher Williams, The Golden Legend, 2009. Performance views, Dance Theater Workshop, New York, 2009. Left: Nicky Paraiso, Rommel Salveron, and Keith Sabado. Right: Silas Riener, Ryuji Yamaguchi, Sydney Skybetter, Clay Drinko, Paul Singh, and Jonah Bokaer. Photos: Stephen Schreiber.
In 2005, the choreographer, dancer, and puppeteer Christopher Williams received a Bessie award for his Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, a dance that was presented as part of a shared bill for the “New, New Stuff” series at P.S. 122. His latest work is a companion piece that focuses on Jacobus de Voragine’s thirteenth-century text Legenda Aurea Sacorum (The Golden Legend). Here Williams discusses this work, which premieres May 12–16 at Dance Theater Workshop in New York.
I STARTED WITH THE WOMEN. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, which featured eleven “solos” loosely inspired by some rather macabre virgin-martyr stories, was my first foray into the making of dance “portraits.” I chose the solo form because I feel that it’s the hardest to choreograph, and I wanted a challenge. In the end, I introduced puppetry and movement choruses and live music, so there are actually few proper “solos.”
After Ursula, I began searching for a larger body of saint texts written in the style of the vita or passio, and the hagiographic scholar Tom Head pointed me toward The Golden Legend. The text is a compilation of over 150 liturgical festivals and individual saint characters; it reads a bit like a comic book—an ur–comic book, perhaps.
From this group, I selected seventeen stories that I thought were particularly choreographic—or simply graphic. With each solo, I gave myself a new kind of challenge. Saint Paul the First Hermit, for instance, was a character that was isolated in the wilderness of the Thebaid for eighty-plus years of his life. The text says that he lived to be 113 years old. He didn’t have any human contact except with Saint Anthony, who was another desert-ascetic character. Wild lions assisted in his burial. I thought about extreme isolation: In choreographing his section, I lay down in the studio for hours on end and just waited for something to happen to me. (Inevitably, if you lie somewhere long enough, something happens to you.)
There’s a devotional piece for Saint Thomas of Canterbury called “Thomas gemma Cantuarie / Thomas cesus in Doveria.” It’s in a medieval style—a rondellus—and it’s filled with this kind of call-and-response effect that resembles the hocket (“hiccups” in Latin), where the rhythms pop up and down in relation to one another. You get a solid melody, but it’s popping through several voices. I began choreographing his section with the idea of rhythm in mind; I considered this when casting as well: The dancer who plays Saint Thomas is David Parker of the Bang Group, who’s known for his rhythmic expertise.
Many of these ideas began as a literary sentence that I then tried to transpose into a choreographic reality. This process mirrors for me the act of reading a book. Your emotional life and visual-imaginary life ignite immediately upon reading. I wanted to enact that effect in a three-dimensional space, which is reflected in the set. There’s a white floor space with a white backdrop, as though a book had fallen into Dance Theater Workshop and opened out toward the audience. When they’re not onstage, the dancers are sitting in thrones that line the wings.
I wanted the piece to be ambiguous, between metaphor and mimesis. It’s not intended to be a literal interpretation of The Golden Legend. I feel very adamant about this: I’m not necessarily a fan of narrative in dance, because it’s not what the form does best. Narrative is more suited for the book. The Golden Legend is not an adaptation but a visual and visceral response to feelings that arise from reading the text.
Ursula and The Golden Legend are companion pieces, though they work individually as well. From the beginning I had intended to make a full lunar cycle's worth of portraits—many of these characters originate before the solar calendar was codified. I have a fantasy of doing a gallery installation in which I show a full cycle of all twenty-eight saints (the eleven from Ursula and the seventeen from The Golden Legend) as a daylong marathon event where viewers can come and leave as they’re happening.
I’ve long been drawn to illuminated manuscripts and art from the Medieval and Renaissance period. In monasteries, the expression of lust and love and other passionate emotions was utterly sublimated into the artwork. The music and literature of that period is like direct change of phase—it goes straight from solid to gas. These were love songs composed to the Virgin Mary. The sacred texts in illuminated manuscripts were surrounded by marginalia composed of apotropaic devices, a sort of protective shield for the text. You see guys with recorders coming out of their anuses and hybrid beasts fucking in the strangest positions. Repression results in an efflorescence of the passionate or wild or savage or risqué.
There are three types of male saints I’ve been interested in: the effeminate, the heroic, and the reclusive. Through these categories, I’ve been able to make subtle comments on contemporary society’s harsh views of marginal lifestyles. I still get flak in New York; I’ll get called “faggot” on the street for a certain choice of garb. We have a lot to learn with regard to how we look at one another. There’s a gossamer bridge for me from the thirteenth century to now.
Employing the structures and tropes of corporate and legal systems, Carey Young frequently implicates viewers in playful yet unnerving participatory actions. To enter her 2005 exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, visitors were required to sign away the copyrights to a set of their own fingerprints. With the help of a top-notch legal team, the artist also delineated a zone of the gallery where the US Constitution did not apply. Here Young discusses her first solo museum exhibition in the States, which opens at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on May 8.
“SPEECH ACTS” WILL FEATURE a series of my call-center works that are accessed by visitors via phones installed in the museum. The works will have live agents, scripted or prerecorded information, call waiting, and menu options. These elements are modified, however, with absurd, poetic, and critical content that adds a twisted utility. The caller’s experience may range from the uncanny to the playful, and at times it might seem unexpectedly cinematic, in that some of the audio recordings are highly evocative of other places, conversations, and moments in time.
The museum’s boardroom, with its generic modernist design, is the main installation space for the show. A line of spotlit telephones will sit waiting for the viewer, each housing a different artwork and linking directly to Charter Communications, a communications company that is sponsoring the show by providing its Saint Louis call center, systems, and agents. (Importantly, all the agents have volunteered to take part.) Key to these works, and to the show as a whole, is the contrast of the concrete physicality of the museum and the hypertextual, performative labyrinths to be explored and interacted with by the viewer via the phones. The works act as negative spaces, which reflect, invert, and critique the exhibition site while alluding to the corporatization and globalization of culture, as well as the importance of agonism (as in adversarial confrontation) and rhetoric to the artistic context. I like the idea that viewers sitting next to one another will be having profoundly different spatial experiences. Sitting in a relatively empty, theatrical setting, viewers will be aware of themselves as providing the (verbal) action in the space––the viewer as performer providing some of the content of the works.
As in much of my past work, the political dimension in this show is offered in part through the repurposing and altering of corporate tools so that they carry material or methods that are subtly critical and satiric. This method refers in part to Cildo Meireles and his series “Insertions into Ideological Circuits” , in which political material is inserted into and distributed by a commercial system. A new work in the show, Follow the Protest , will feature quasi-documentary audio material by offering the caller evocative recordings and interviews that I made at the recent G-20 protests in London. These recordings of passionate protest add another layer of spatiality and add to the polyphony of voices in the show.
This show expands on a number of my previous works, for which I altered corporate and legal tools to consider notions of the relation of art to globalized commerce, site, scripting, participation, language, and viral forms. I’ve made two prior call-center works, both of which explore ideas of portraiture and will be restaged for this show. In Nothing Ventured, 2000–2009, devised as a “telephonic self-portrait,” the call-center agents were asked to treat me as if I were just another “product” to be marketed over the phone. They offer callers a brief overview of my work and career. My aim with this piece is for the script to feel like a limitation and for the ensuing conversations to go off-script. I ask the agents to respond to any topic the caller may bring up, but interestingly, these queries have linked to concepts in the work, for example whether the caller’s telephone was for sale as part of the piece or whether the agents control the meaning of the work. The agents are given free rein to answer as they wish. I listen to the call recordings and type transcripts that form the documentation of the work. With this piece, the power to create the meaning of the work is, at the very least, shared and in some senses controlled by the call-center agents. This theme will be developed further in the show by a new work, Monster Flat Out , which allows callers to decide on the subject of the work.