Talking Back: A Conversation with Tony Oursler
By Elizabeth Janus and Tony Oursler
Published in Williams College Museum of Art
Apr. 4, 2010
The history of this “ conversation” dates back to 1993, when the Belgian magazine Forum International asked me to interview Tony Oursler. After discussing the prospect with the artist, we decided to put on paper segments of a real conversation that we had started when he was at the Centre d’art contemporain in Geneva that same year, working on his installation White Trash and Phobic. This interchange revolved specifically around Oursler’ s latest work, which was at a crucial turning point at the time, as a few years earlier he had stopped producing the single-channel videotapes for which he was best known and had begun to concentrate almost exclusively on more elaborate installations comprised of human-like figures onto which he projected emoting or talking faces.
We discussed, at length, larger questions about the evolution of video as an art form, especially the fact that more and more artists were turning to the medium and incorporating it as one means among many into their general output. Another issue that we addressed was how video had begun to move out of its “ ghetto,” one in which specialized curators, critics, and other interested cognoscenti traveled the circuit of video festivals, which at the time were the primary venues for most video art. Already having a prominent place within this specialized scene, Oursler was in the process of breaking out of that tight-knit circle by showing his works in a number of European Kunsthallen and museums.
When Forum International abruptly stopped publication, Oursler decided to use our written conversation as one of the texts for a catalogue accompanying his exhibition in 1995 at the Kunstverein in Salzburg, and it was in this publication that it first took shape. Since then, Oursler and I have continued to discuss the ideas behind the development of his work, publishing the text in a variety of forms: as part of a special issue of the Swedish periodical Paletten , which was dedicated to Oursler and ? yvind Fahlstr? m; and for the catalogue that accompanied his one-person exhibition in 1997 at capcMus?e d’art contemporain in Bordeaux.
The version published here incorporates these earlier texts with more recent insights into Oursler’ s art.
Elizabeth Janus: When I first saw your early videotapes, particularly Grand Mal , I was struck by how familiar they seemed. This is partly because your early style was consciously childlike? using garishly hand-painted sets and body parts for characters? but also because the tapes typically revolve around simple stories about good and evil. I find these moral tales not at all didactic partly because of your use of irony, which is at the same time funny and unsettling. This lack of preachiness tends to make one focus less on what the stories can teach rather than how children’ s stories, fairy tales, etc. (and children’ s television!) are used as powerful instruments of moral and ethical instruction. I was hoping that you could talk about the source of these early narratives.
Tony Oursler: I am a bit defensive about the term “ childlike.” There is a heavy reverence for the very male and very adult use of the tools of technology, and many people have categorized my work as childish, which to me is like saying that regression in psychoanalysis is childish, or that the shadow plays of Bali are childish because of the use of hands. But in retrospect, these early tapes do have a celebration of youth culture in them. Like a dramatic play that reveals large issues in broad strokes of black and white. This I still find profound. Like a kid who is constantly asking, “ Why? Why? Why?” over and over again. That’ s profound.
I was trying in this early work to create a mental space through the use of narratives and images. Some of these are about events that date from the ages of six to thirteen and up to maybe twenty-four, which was the age I developed this work. I was, and still am, interested in a psychodramatic grammar of moving images (cinema and television), and it seems that dating information and characters is part of that. Also, there’ s a shorthand to express many of the images? places, people, things. I tried in this early work to make images move with the means available to me, in other words, my body, which is at the core of what I can move. But I should say above all that the early videotapes were designed to mirror a thought pattern or process. This is in opposition to a film grammar, which is about looking outward and attempting to replace the eye. My work is designed to work with the way we really see, which has to do with a very complicated referencing system full of memory, conjecture, and multi-voxed narratives.
As you said, good and evil play a big part in my early work, and that may be because I tend to see things in black and white. This is, of course, a major aspect of the Catholic Church world view with which I grew up. The rules are intended to make life simple and “ good” and to order one’ s thoughts and, above all, to focus fears in a direction for the good of the countenance of the church. But I don’ t know what happened with our generation: it just didn’ t take. I do have a very active spiritual mind, but it seems to me that most people wanted to be “ bad” when constrained by the foolish strictures of the church. I could see the hollow aspects of various rituals, the hypocrisy, the lies. I could go on, as I’m sure that you could, too. But the biblical style of narrative was? and is? of great interest to me personally (I plan to read the Bible soon!) as well as American culture in general.
It seems to me that the Catholic Church is at the end of an era: its narratives are so at odds with the cultural setting and the lives of its “ followers” that it’ s in a state of total restructuring. I’ m thankful for my early connection to the church because it’ s given me a mystical side to counteract the techno-materialism of our age. It’ s given me an ability to show reverence for systems and things unseen: conspiracy theory, paranoia, etc. But back to your big question. It is also the root of my interest in questions of good and evil in narratives. I’m interested in involving the viewer in the drama? one must make some judgments, empathize, place oneself in the picture, so to speak. But in the early work, I was attempting to work with pseudo-universal themes in a way that would make a connection with the viewer? a comfortable space for them to enter, to react, and to complete the text. Thus, how they feel about themselves is part of what they make of it in real time. And, as you say, we become aware of what the story is trying to do to us, we invent the overall meta-narrative. My use of irony, thus, is designed to be read on many levels but mostly as a kind of deconstruction mechanism.
The early sources for my narratives were what I call personal/pop: a combo of supermarket tabloids and personal experience, mostly things that I picked up aurally from others. I was like a narrative antenna in the early work? studying and collecting urban legends, fables, folk tales. The only unifying factor in these tales is that they never really happened. They are always told second or third hand: “ Listen to this: a friend of a friend had this happen . . . .” A pseudo-scientific collection has been made of these, giving great detail to history, religion, etc. But I am really interested in how one’ s own narrative history is created: what you did, what was done to you. Somewhere there is an inner guide to good and evil. Everyone must make a choice, as we are all subjective. Maybe the attempt to codify these two forces has something to do with art making. Is that crazy?
EJ: The stories that made up these early tapes were also grounded in an intricate and highly articulate narrative structure, suggesting a deep-rooted interest in language. Could this have anything to do with the fact that you come from a family of writers and editors?
TO: My family history has been a great influence on me, which is something that I would not have admitted when I was younger, as there is always a struggle of separation. All of my relatives are storytellers, some are professional writers, some are just great at orally recounting a story, and this, no doubt, has been of consequence for me. My grandmother and grandfather wrote religious mysteries and even children’ s books. My grandfather Fulton, wrote The Greatest Story Ever Told, which was a bestseller and also became a film. My grandmother, Grace Perkins, was more successful in Hollywood, writing the screenplays for such films as Night Nurseand Boy Crazy . My father was editor at Reader’ s Digest for thirty years, then went on to manage Guideposts and now has launched a magazine about angels.
In retrospect it is not surprising that this history has affected my work, particularly the pop-cultural aspect of my family’ s writing? that their narratives were for everyone. Reader’ s Digest and its politics were a source of conflict to be sure, but I often thought that somehow Andy Warhol and his art were very relevant to the popular spirit of the Reader’ s Digest .
My own use of narrative was always intended to trap the viewer: a structure to build upon, play with. As with my use of “ actors,” my narratives are constantly falling apart. The more I study narrative structure, the more I become convinced that there is no such thing. What we know as narrative is really a mental or physical predisposition in the reader/viewer rather than a structure.
EJ: Video has been your medium of choice since the beginning, even though I know that you paint and draw quite a bit. Video seems to have become one of the most relevant tools for an artist today, given that ours is a largely visual culture and television has become, as many of the early video artists predicted and Benjamin Buchloh articulated, “ the primary social practice of visual meaning production.” Though your use of video has evolved over the past decade, from the tapes to more complex installations, have your reasons for using it changed much over the years?
TO: I think you know that I see a direct link of relevance, in terms of medium, leading from cave paintings up to video. Now I see digital technologies as the great unifier? but this is the technical side of things, and basically I have no respect for solely technology- based work. The cultural value of these technologies is always a distorted reflection of desire, which perhaps is why I was attracted to video in the first place and why I continue to use it. Maybe it’ s like a miner finding gold? no, that’ s too romantic? it’ s more like a junkie finding a fix. Anyway, how we make art with video is our only hope of remaining vital in this culture.
The problem is that it takes time to watch video works, and most other art doesn’t. People
have a hard time focusing their attention for any length of time, and it is very difficult to make anything with video that will hold the viewer’ s interest. It’ s a form that creative people should pass through and return to when they have to. It’ s a very hot island. I have to keep leaving or else. . . .
When I look at the short history of video, most of the best work was made by artists, not video artists, for example William Wegman and John Baldessari. It wasn’t until the 1980s that artists gave up the conceptual torch to make some money and thus to fracture the art world into separate mediums. Now it’ s great to see things changing and video is back again, just in time for it to dissolve into a big binary code? black and white again. My use of video has changed over the years in the sense that the early tapes, like Grand Mal  and The Loner, were interior worlds that we could all meet in. Now I am using dummies, which are agents that enter the world in a more aggressive way, more as catalysts. This was already happening with the hybrid sculptures, such as Spillchamber II  or Kepone Drum , which were physically fragile.
But back to my early tapes . . . These inner worlds were very much a psycho-landscape, and I thought a lot about the nature of places, sets, landscapes and how these could be made to “ talk.” The classical approach to video space is within a Western hierarchy, which means that the head is the center? eyes and mouth? and the rest of the picture is background or is part of the frame. Video is also a hypnotic medium and leads to a neutral space? this is the place inside which we grow, and it is important that we swim into it, make it two-way, violate the power structure of technology. Now I’m interested in putting the video into the exterior world and letting it function there. The dummies are one solution to my transition into that world; they are mirrors of the body in it. They take the space of the screen and displace it. The storyteller has come full circle. Language and image become one, as they do in the human body. Video no longer acts as a window to look through but is somehow made physical.
A few years ago, when I made my first dummies, I was thinking a lot about how movie time? media time, the camera, the narratives? has really punctured our world, how it is the fourth-dimensional space of our time. I tried to make figures that could exist in between the interior and exterior worlds, literally, like seers that we can’t see and can’t see us. You can begin to see this in the two dummies that were installed together in 1993 at the Centre d’ art contemporain in Geneva, Phobic and White Trash.
EJ: Several of your installations from the last few years have made direct references to identity formation, states of mind, empathy displacement, phobias, and multiple personality disorder. I was thinking specifically about your early installationModel Release/Par-Schizoid Position/Test from 1992, which was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the piece that you just mentionedP,hobic. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about your general interest in psychology and about these pieces in particular.
TO: Coming back for a minute to White Trashand Phobic , these works are a bridge between two subsets of dummy projects: the “ movie” series and the series based on psychological states. These two subsets intersected in a sea of blood, so to speak; or, more simply put, in my ongoing interest in violence. I’ m questioning the impulse to re- enact extremely elaborate violent trauma? a violence that takes on ritual dimensions? and whether this is somehow a positive service that the media performs for the public or whether we are involved in some kind of sick cycle. Anyway, death and the fear of death
seem to be great motivators.
What I enjoy about the attempts to codify the human mind, as in the MMPI [the Minneapolis Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory? a test used to determine personality disorders and the basis of Test ], is that it seems to offer an interesting, direct way to engage the viewer, which, in general, is always a goal of mine. I think of it as a trap, in a way, exploiting the nature of the mind, much like persistence of vision in film. People have to answer questions; they have to complete the picture. So I was attracted to the systems of tools designed to define pathology. One thing that has become very clear to me recently is that I use a method of connecting systems: personal to public. This is why I’m intrigued by psycho-history, how paranoid schizophrenic theory is used to explain the oppression of groups of people, like the Nazis against the Jews in Europe and the Puritans against witches in America.
EJ: Your interest in MPD [multiple personality disorder], besides being a continuation
of your psychology-directed works, seems a natural consequence of these investigations into the relationship between violence and the media and more specifically between the media and memory. As Pierre Janet first recognized in studying the symptoms of hysteria, multiple personalities are the result of a pathological fragmentation of memory, usually the memory of a violent trauma.
For the installationJudy  at the Salzburger Kunstverein and later at the Institute
of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia  you created a visual essay on MPD, incorporating its causes and effects, such as the dissociation and fragmentation of trauma and the development of alters, into an interactive environment. Perhaps you can describe how your ideas for this installation came about and how it relates to some of the recent emoting dummies and dolls, for example those that weep or have fits of hysteria or rage.
TO: The emotive works came first? they are an attempt to distill mental states. For me these works became the embodiment of the link between the media and the psychological states it is capable of provoking: empathy, fear, arousal, anger. I have always wanted to be able to cry at will; the idea has always fascinated me, but I could never do it. I work with actors, sometimes artists, writers, and performers to crystallize these states, like directing a movie consisting only of the most extreme psychodrama localized in a single figure. Mostly, I’ve worked with one actor, Tracy Leipold, who does some work with the Wooster Group and lots of other things in New York. We have developed an understanding and she is really able to go into some amazing places and to take us with her.
These experiments led to an informal catalogue of emotions and states, some I call sublingual. They are interesting to a larger audience because they don’t need to be translated. Anyway, each of these states or combination of states became a work or entity. Seeing these entities multiply over time was a natural bridge into the subject matter of MPD. At this point, I should mention a few features of this disease. As you said, MPD generally occurs in victims of the most extreme cases of sexual, violent and/or psychological trauma. A defense is developed to protect the “ core self,” which creates personas to accept aspects of the unbearable torture inflicted upon them. Dissociation is the unconscious mechanism in which a group of mental activities “ split off” from the main stream of consciousness and function as a separate unit.
There are many analogies between MPD and the media-viewer relationship, the multiple
switching unknowingly from one personality to another like a hypnotized actor. They can be seen as a collection of characters acting out a horrible, true-life drama. In fact, some psychiatrists theorize that multiples are really just experts in self-hypnosis. It has also been theorized that since the U.S. seems to be suffering from an epidemic of MPD while it remains unknown or rejected in the rest of the world, it is a mass-hysterical epidemic fueled by pop cultural accounts in the media.
I would suggest a deeper relationship: an internal mirror of media structures and individual practice in relation to it. The viewer’ s ability to empathize and evoke vicarious hypnotic psychological states for the sake of enacting archetypal dramas is the logical foundation. Physicians have even likened the multiple’ s ability to shift personalities to channel switching or “ zapping.” . . . Perhaps, for some, the television interaction is a model for a new psychological frontier. Certainly, the accounts of MPDs, the destructive manner in which they live, have been a steady narrative in popular books, TV, and movies.
Originally, I wanted to work with an actual multiple, but working with Tracy seemed wiser and more to the point, which is not to emphasize the exotic aspects of the disorder but to see how our culture is reflected in it. In Judy she represents three alters/personalities: Horror, Boss, and Fuck You. A fourth, silent figure, performed by Catherine Dill, returns naked to the womb. The fifth is created by an interactive, or should I say symbiotic, situation where the participant enters into the work. Tracy and the flowers, which are everywhere? a sort of mock feminine camouflage or skin? are the unifying aspects of the installation.
The surveillance simulacra (remote control camera and audio system) situated above the entrance of the Kunstverein in Salzburg could easily be controlled from within the installation; it allowed the participant to “ see through the eyes” of the figure outside and to speak through it.
EJ: Besides your individual works and the recent large-scale installations likeJudy and System for Dramatic Feedback  you have done a number of performances, such as Fantastic Prayers, which was shown in the U.S. and in Europe, became a CD -ROM, and was part of the Dia Center’ s Web site. I know that in the past, collaborative projects have been very important for you and that you have worked with such artists, musicians, filmmakers, and performers as Tony Conrad, Constance DeJong, Karen Finley, Joe Gibbons, Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley (most recently oTnhe Poetics Project for Documenta X), as well as many others. Perhaps you could talk a little about your past performances as well as future projects and the importance of collaboration for you.
TO: In 1988 I got really involved with collaboration as a strategy. This is especially true in relation to the videotapes, which, after ten years of making at least one tape per year and expending lots of extremely personal energy, I felt I had finished with that. In a way, I thought that I had nothing more to prove and that I would start to repeat myself, as I had certainly developed many habits after years of making tapes. So, rather than stop producing them altogether, I thought that working in collaboration might be a way to go. The fact that I prefer to “ use” artists in my projects is because they are always willing to experiment and often have an authenticity that actors do not; the exception being Tracy, who is like my alter ego, and we have learned to experiment together.
Constance DeJong and I had worked together on some major projects in the past, but in
1988 we decided to really try to produce some hybrid works. The result was Joy Ride, a fourteen-minute videotape, and Relatives , a sixty-minute performance incorporating live performers and television monitors, which toured extensively throughout Europe and the U.S. These are works that neither one of us would have produced individually, so in a way they are quite mysterious to me. At the time, I really liked the idea of creating a new artistic identity by working with someone else.
These two projects then were followed by the Sonic Youth music video Tunic (Song for Karen) in 1990 and two situation comedies, ONOUROWN and Toxic Detox  with Joe Gibbons. These last two really pushed my personal identity to the point of discomfort and, though I really enjoyed the results, were the end of my making videotapes.
EJ: In 1995 you produced a series of human-scale double figure projections, the first of which was titled Autochthonous and consisted of a male figure whispering to a female
one who, staring blankly ahead, was protesting emphatically, as if the voice she was hearing was somehow coming from inside her own head. In this case, you try to visualize an autochthonous experience? one in which ideas or thought processes arise independently of one’ s own train of thought and thus seem to come from some external or alien source? by giving a human form to the voices she’ s hearing. As such, this piece seems related to your work on alters and multiples, but in another, very subtle way it functions analogously to the process of artistic creation itself, the so-called artistic imagination, which, as we have seen throughout the history of art, literature, and music, is often the result of artists’ psychoses or induced by drugs or alcohol. Is this reading
way off the mark?
TO: Well, at last you have brought up the question of that split, the second one, the reflection, the twin, the darkness, the other, which lately has been present in my work. I don’ t know when I first became interested in the subject, maybe in reading Donovan’ s Brain as a teenager, or living in New York City when the city government decided to release large numbers of psychiatric patients from the hospitals, which was a cruel civil rights act for the mentally ill. I was fascinated by the person that I would see walking down the street holding a very animated, one-sided conversation, so I tried to imagine what the silent partner was saying. This open conversational structure, as we have already discussed, has been an ideal model for me: a model of the relationship between the viewer and the work of art. I have always fantasized about a dialogue that invites a creative engagement on the part of the viewer.
In any case, these two-figure works, which I call the Autochthonous Series, add a twist to this idea as they imply that there is a darker drama going on precisely because the viewer can’ t hear but rather is compelled to imagine an aggressive, antagonistic voice; in other words, there is a collaboration with the darker side.
I did write very specific texts for these works, which were inspired by the concept of violation. I was thinking about aliens and demons because there is a real ambivalence about responsibility in those cases, and there are certain questions that remain open, often without an answer: Is this self-imposed? Have you done this to yourself? Are you the dark side of yourself that you are fighting? It would be just too easy to target a murderer or a torturer. What if you yourself are the figure back there, just out of sight, that one whispering into your own ear.
Ironically, [Alfred ]Binet first wrote of d?doublement , or the split consciousness, in relation to a patient in Bordeaux, so I was really pleased to have one of my Autochthonous works in the museum’ s collection in the city where it all started. The texts or half-texts for these pieces were written in the spirit of hypnotic recollection, a blend of past and present time, for example: “ Don’ t make me do that again? NO, NO? I don’ t like it, I’m not listening, I’m not listening, I’m not listening to a word that you’re saying. Don’t make me go up there again, please,” I really love the recounting of alien abductions, which are rich in religious and sexual connotations, and back in 1993 this really informed my writing, as it did ten years earlier with my installation L7-L5 .
But I tend to think of artistic creation as generally marred by drugs and alcohol rather than enhanced by them. Perhaps psychosis may have shaped some basic artistic impulses, but where is the follow-through, the discipline, the craft? I can only think of a few productive artists who are chronic, because for most artists, all of that stuff just dampens their fire. I always wonder what people would have done if they had managed to clean up, how much better the work could have been. On the other hand, there is a fuzzy line of distinction between addiction and other forms of mental illness. Often it’ s a “ which came first” sort of guessing game, with free will at the core of the problem. People with various classical organic conditions achieve the status of “ outsider” artist, but really it is just their form of expression that we respond to, the fact that they paint or draw, which makes it fall into the acceptable category of Art. Other activities could be just as interesting but are a little more scary. The fact is that the thinking involved in these conditions is truly fascinating, regardless of its manifestation. But I don’ t see madness as whispering into the ear of the tormented artist. Sadly, it seems that most people don’ t even have the luxury of that much distance. Madness equals total saturation. No way out. Home alone for a lifetime, like Henry Darger. He certainly was able to capture a pure streak of illness and convert it into a most amazing secret art. Can a dialogue with illness translate into the larger context of art? I really wonder. I would like to see Darger in the context of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, or perhaps eventually in a Disney-like context. Imagine the spin-offs, the dolls and computer games, and, of course, the theme park with rides. Someday we may see a history of art from the last hundred years rewritten to include so-called Outsider Art, the Lost and Forgottens, the Firsts and Thirds, and the Pop (but without the term art attached to it). Then we would really see a whole new list of artists. Most people I know have this expanded list already in their heads.
EJ: At the beginning of 1997 you did an elaborate site-specific installation titledSwitch, which was commissioned by the Mus?e National d’ Art Moderne in Paris. In most cases, when you do installations, and even when you do exhibitions of individual pieces, you always seem to try to integrate the works into the specific context of a place. I imagine that this is to a large extent necessitated by the fact that your work tends to be fairly intricate in nature and often there are complex technical aspects to be considered, but also I think that you are genuinely interested in context and how a place will act upon the audience’ s understanding of your work. Perhaps this comes out of your conceptual art- influenced background.
The site-specific installations so widespread during the 1970s were intended not only to evoke a history, a political connection to or some other association with a particular place, but they also had an intentionally ephemeral quality to them, the result of a wish by artists to focus on the “ here and now” of an art action or intervention rather than on
a final product. Obviously these utopian days are long gone, and we know that even some die-hard conceptualists had to document their actions, to make related objects or images, in order to survive.
But back toSwitch, which is a fairly complicated installation involving interactive sound and image functions, light bulbs that speak, a huge eye, and several of your dolls and dummies, which in this case take on the characters of an omniscient director spouting cues and stage directions and a pair of “ philosophers,” who release a stream of axioms and philosophical propositions. Perhaps you can talk about some of the ideas behind this piece and how you would situate it in relation to earlier site-specific installations.
TO: Site is really the crucial term for this work, regardless of the seventies baggage that comes along with it. Most of the time, working in a specific idiosyncratic space is a bittersweet experience. One tends to spend most of the time collaborating with the site, researching it, extending it into the work and vice versa. I say “ bittersweet” because after investing in a given exhibition and space, one feels compromised to some degree by what you call the “ ephemeral” aspect of a work, the fact that it is eventually removed when the exhibition is terminated and may never feel quite the same when installed in another context. Some even question the validity of site-specificity: “ art should be able to exist in any context, be universal,” and all that blah-blah-blah.... When it does work, though, when the art really resonates, then it can reach a pitch that is beyond the sum of its parts, and it can turn out to be something greater than either art or architecture.
Working with a particular site has been an interest of mine for many years, as in The Watchingfor Documenta IX, which was in a staircase in the Fridericianum, or Private, an installation I did in 1993 in an old house in Oslo. So when Christine van Assche asked me to propose something site-specific for the Pompidou, I was delighted because the work would end up in the national collection, which meant that it would stay on-site forever? even if not exhibited forever? instead of being taken down after a month or so. This added a new level to the project.
Switch was designed to fit, or rather to work with, the Pompidou Center. I spent a lot of time just looking around the building, taking in its energy, which I was already quite familiar with after having worked there with Christine in 1985. I love public space in general, and the Pompidou Center is a wonderful example of a cultural public space? the people really use it, hard. I remember visiting it as a kid when it first opened, when there were people having picnics with blankets, wine, smoking? whole families sitting on the floor of the paintings galleries. It was wild. In 1985, while installing one of my dark room works, I got to know some of the technical assistants working there who told me some great stories about how they had to design screening rooms that were not too dark and without too many nooks because they had found people fucking in the museum. I was hoping that people would do the same in my installation. Maybe it was this experience that lead me to some of my decisions for Switch .
So it was the inaccessible spaces of the museum that attracted me. In fact, the set-up there is basically like a giant warehouse, with very high ceilings and the legendary exposed pipes. The gallery spaces are merely a set of walls, so that you can see the ceiling from almost everywhere. But the gallery space seems very small in proportion to the rest of the space, and most of it is inaccessible, above your head. It’ s funny that way: you can’ t get to most of the space. So, invasion was in order.
I started to envision the installation as having something to do with the difference between the theoretical and the actual, the instructions and the execution, the map and the
place. While watching people move around this building one wonders: Have they been fulfilled by the cultural events that first attracted them here? The struggle to transcend is really evident there. At the same time, I began to organize the work as a loosely related set of pieces to be spread across two floors, occupying the off spaces. By “ off” I mean the spaces that have no direct use. For example, I placed an emotive red figure under the escalator, hidden below this endless stream of people ascending and descending. Obviously, I had to use the beams, and someone explained to me that little of the interior beam work is structural, that most of it is decorative. I had been working on the notion of truth and how we equivocate about reality, so I wanted two small twin dolls arguing or discussing in various verbal forms, ones that would go on and on. They would basically be talking over each other, ignoring what the other was saying, almost chanting. It was with these two figures that I had some fun with French stereotypes. For these figures I worked with Warren Niesluchowski, who translated and performed the texts in French; he has a great mind and a presence on camera. The text came from several sources, as I wanted a high-low conversation: everything from philosophy 101 to pop stuff, personal improvement junk and very technical proofs of truths like the following universally quantified sentence formula:
(c) (c will go bump in the night)
All cats go bump in the night,
Any and all cats go bump in the night,
All cats are such that they go bump in the night, Every cat goes bump in the night,
For any cat, it goes bump in the night.
? Richard I. Kirkham
EJ: Recently you’ ve started to break away from representing full figures to concentrate on individual body parts, for example the group of individual eyes first shown in New York  and the disembodied heads that were included in the 1997 Whitney Biennial. If I’m not mistaken, the precursor to these works is your installatioSnystem for Dramatic Feedback , in which you projected various body parts, such as an erect penis, a punching fist, and a pregnant belly that twitched periodically, onto a pile of clothing meant to represent bodies.
The eye pieces, which are oversized spheres onto which you project a single, blinking
eye, initially give the impression of having a symbolic or totemic value? I’ m thinking of the little amulets in the shape of an eye that are carried or worn to ward off evil. On the other hand, the “ talking heads,” which are individual faces projected onto oval-shaped smoked glass, are very minimal representations of a human presence that more directly focus the viewer’ s attention on what the heads are saying (the spoken text) rather than on the sculptures’ likenesses to real people. Interestingly, the label “ talking head” originally was used to describe the close-up of a person? such as a news commentator? on a television screen and still has this connotation.
Taken in combination, these two sets of works suggest a tendency on your part to move away from the uncanny aspect that has so fascinated viewers of your dolls and dummies. TO: I guess it was a natural process of breaking down the body? or rather, rearranging it while at the same time not letting it die completely. The piled-up figures that you mention in System for Dramatic Feedbackwere amputated and connected at the same time: both aspects diminished by an emphasis on individual actions yet expanded and designed to
flow in a way that made it impossible to tell where one part ended and the next began. It is a sculptural representation of a psychotic point of view, “ I can’ t tell where I end and you begin,” as well as a hippie point of view, “ Look, we’ re all connected by a shared physical state.”
But the way I used the space for this installation was also very important. It was divided into various areas through which the viewer had to move. Besides the pile of figures, there was also a large wall projection that showed a film audience seen from the point of view of the movie screen? a reverse- angle shot that showed them in their theater seats, munching popcorn and watching. This was very “ situationist” in a way and difficult to shoot, but it cast the entire room into that of a media space. The pile of bodies was placed off center and a small “ horror” figure that was screaming was placed on the floor in the corner. But as I said, the final layer of the project was the viewers, who wandered in and around the space looking at the various parts.
As you say, the individual eye pieces did come out of that project. Your likening them to amulets is lovely, and from this idea you might even see them in relation to those ex- votos representing a sick part of the body that one finds in churches. What I was trying to do was to simplify and to personalize some of the ideas found in System for Dramatic Feedback , try to make them more exact. One could say that the recursive relationship between the viewer and the movie screen, which in the case of this installation is doubled by its being projected onto the wall, is all concentrated in the eye. And, of course, the body. But the thought of making an eye on the same scale as the body would be colossal! So I used the macro function on the video camera to shoot the eyes; it was the only way that video could ever approach the resolution of film or create something that is larger than life in extreme close-up. Somehow that translates into a medical? and almost pornographic? intimacy. Each piece was created by first videotaping a person’ s eye and then projecting it onto a sphere. The video image wraps around half of the sphere as though it were a rounded movie screen, allowing us to see the eyeball in great detail. And, reflected on the surface of the iris, one can see a very small image from a television or movie screen. The pupil expands and contracts with the light from the media that is reflected in it, almost as if it were reflexively feeding on the light, opening for the dark parts, closing for the bright ones. The eye as an object is a model for a number of systems and, of course, machines.
As you point out, with the eyes and with the talking heads there is a move away from the uncanny. Though, to tell you the truth, I just stumbled onto figurative sculpture. It was, and remains, a very perverse challenge for me and a way to get to the place where only they can lead. But really my point is that the body has never been made “ flesh” in a media state. If you look carefully at the talking heads, they are perfect metaphors for a free-floating self. Media like television and film were invented to mentally take the body outside of itself: whatever the brain wants it to be, it will become. But the free-floating head is a trope that is ever-present. I guess I first noticed it in early American political cartoons.
My talking heads, which are pre-recordings that are slowed down, fast forwarded and sometimes freeze framed, are mostly spouting found texts like “ the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out” and other types of children’ s rhymes on the edge of everyone’ s memory, on the tip of everyone’ s tongue? you know, the sing-songy things from childhood. Each head says something different, and when they are put together in the same room, they talk over each other. So hearing each individual text is not necessarily so important but rather how such rhymes have entered into our consciousness and have
stayed there. I am interested in how such things occupy a rare, almost democratic? by the people and for the people? niche in the collective psyche, and I really believe that they can give one insight into a particular nation or culture.
EJ: For your exhibition at Metro Pictures in the fall of 1998, you took on the theme of the vanitas as it was elaborated in seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting, using a collection of plaster skulls onto which were projected mouths and other body parts as well as scrolling texts about the aesthetics of death. It’ s interesting that you have turned to such a rich and ominous subject now, since the end of the millennium has been? at least in the past? a moment when many began reflecting on and preparing for the Apocalypse. While this may not be literally the case for you, such a vision can be seen as analogous to current, conflicting attitudes about technology’ s potential as either a savior of the human race or, because of its presumed alienating qualities, the cause of civil society’ s downfall, and your combination of the skull’ s symbolic weight as ma emento mori with video images makes it the perfect sign for this duality.
What also struck me about this installation is that, like traditional images of thveanitas, there is an ambiguous moral undertone, one that allows a double take on the fleeting nature of life: on the one hand suggesting that we behave ourselves for the coming of Judgment Day, and on the other hand inviting us to indulge in the pleasures of life before we go the way of all flesh.
TO: About a year and a half ago, I started thinking about the nature? both abstract and symbolic? of objects and about the sign’ s physical manifestation. One thing led to another and I began to think about the ways that objects are brought together to form a composition, eventually arriving at the concept of the still life.
Usually I develop a body of work related to a topic very much outside the art world, but in this case, perhaps because I had been drawing and painting a lot for The Poetics Project, I became fascinated with the potential of a sort of meta-artwork, which the still life seemed to embody. I envisioned a project involving sculpture, found objects, painting as well as moving images, some of which I would produce, others that were pre-existing, but all of them tightly edited, like images within images.
While looking for that essential “ object” onto which I wanted to project the images, I discovered in various shops around the city these highly charged but also very generic plaster casts used as craft items or kitschy, kinky curios. Guns, flowers, clowns, dragons, phalluses, skulls: an endless catalogue of the world as blank icons scaled down to an obtainable size. . . . Since they are blank forms devoid of any surface treatment or color, they suggested a kind of screen that I saw as something between the mental and the physical.
As I continued, I started to mix in more personal items, like a landscape painting that I found in my aunt Zita Mellon’ s studio and some handmade things that looked like DNA nodes of viruses. . . . So I began experimenting with video projections on these
“ compositions” of blanks and non-blanks that quickly became very complicated. While mining my massive archive of videotape, I built up layers or zones of imagery that corresponded to the composition, and as the subject matter of each work became evident, I shot new material: poems, scans of my body, explosions taken from TV. . . .
The end result was a suite of three of what I call viruses that were shown at the Kunstverein, Hanover. . . . First, a virus is the smallest living thing that transmits information, and their exponential reproductive potential is a rudimentary form of
communication. As [William] Burroughs said, “ language is a virus” ? a metaphor I love that suggests ideas flowing in vectors, amplifying, mutating, and affecting the host. There is a universality to the process, and somehow when you look at the structure of the actual virus as a sculptural form, so much is reflected in it, like the cold spartan utility of a plague with the circuitry of a computer chip. This became the subject matter: collage, mutation, composition, the cyclical nature of ideas, archetypes, along with some personal references. . . .
As you said, the presumed alienating qualities of technology were certainly at the heart of my strategy. After Hanover, I took some months to do nothing but read and research. I had been collecting quite a bit of material on the history of television and the technologies that preceded it. Most of my recent work has had to do with current trends? day-to-day life in relation to technology? but digging into the recent past made me really curious, and I read further into the psycho-technological aspects of art and history.
At first, I started making a big timeline of the social implications of technology that showed technological developments alongside various cultural trends, particularly those connected to horror and fear. Surprisingly, these led me directly back to the still life. The ever-present skull? thememento mori? in many of the compositions seemed to be the harbinger of a death culture, and its shape implied the false or surrogate consciousness that is at the heart of media.
In looking back at the history of the still life, the skull kept getting bigger, overwhelming all the other objects in the composition, and the blank white surface seemed to dominate the picture. At the same time, certain technological advances were having an ascendancy, [such as] the camera obscura. It seemed to me at this point that the skull was only one step away from the camera obscura: a dark chamber with light streaming through an opening? the empty eye socket? into the lost sea of consciousness. A frightening clich?, but it was an icon that kept returning.
At the height of its popularity, the still life was an example of an art of the everyday? something new at the time? that was also in confluence with the development of the camera obscura, which facilitated the ability to mediate reality, capture it, codify it. But the presentation of information at that moment? the narratives, the images? were all within the system of signs and symbols intricately intertwined within the delicate compositions of the still life. I find it really interesting that this language is possibly the basis for a system of reading images that can be considered the first “ virtual space.” This was year zero for me; the advent of what we now know as media.
You also mentioned the ambiguous moral undertone of the vanitas, which implies a duality and can be seen as well in the “ technology” of the camera obscura; in other words, how do the dark inside and the light outside meet? I guess when I was tracing this history, I was looking at the dark side, the representation of death or more exactly the consequences of the representation of death: its psychological and physical manifestations, the rush associated with fear and how it is triggered. . . . But in every era the skull has been all-important due to the effects that it produces, namely fear and excitement, whether it be a Clive Barker horror movie, the Victorian interest in displaying a murderer’ s tools, a text by one of the Graveyard Poets, or [Edward] Robertson’ s Fantasmagoria. Make me laugh, make me cry? the skull is everything and nothing and the most overcharged icon that I’ ve ever tried to rescue.
EJ: There are two other qualities that I found interesting in this installation: your use of
feedback as an aesthetic tool, and a greater emphasis on light, for example in the wall projections with insects flying around? flies and moths, I think. Certainly the fly with its connection to putrefaction and decay fits in with the fear/death combination.
TO: One of the works in the Metro Pictures show, Feedback, was inspired by the feeling of being bleached, washed out, flooded with the light of media? like when you’ ve had
too much sugar and watched too many hours of TV and you start to feel ill. I asked myself, How is it possible to record such a light? The answer was simple: just create feedback by recording directly off the TV, which is one of the oldest tricks in the video art book but still very interesting. The recognizable images are amplified and their over- modulation turns them into meta-images: you can even see patterns in the spiraling light that seem to be coming at you. In capturing this light, I thought of a text that I had read about the stereoscope written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.: “ Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer except as a mold on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, then from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please. . . . There may grow up something like a universal currency of these bank-notes or promises to pay in solid substance, which the sun has engraved for the great Bank of Nature.” I took this as a departure point for the skull that became Feedback, in other words, the twaining of matter and form: a frightening parting of the ways but an essential one.
The fly figures into two of the works: Aperture, which is a still life, and Camera Obscura, an edition consisting of only a black and white projection of a fly that filled the back wall of the gallery. The projector was situated behind the exact center of the opposite wall and projected through a hole; it turned the space into an actual camera obscura, with the light catching people in the eyes in half of the room. Much like the scrolling text, the big fly crawls all over the place, searching ever searching. “ The butterfly as a symbol of salvation and resurrection is in opposition to the dragonfly which, according to Ulisse Aldrovandi and Thomas Moufetus, was seen as a sub-species of the common fly. With reference to Kings 1: 11 (Beelzebub? lord of the flies) they considered flies to be creatures of the devil.” ? Norbert Schneider,Still Life.
EJ: There is one particular skull? the one with the jewels gushing out of its orifices like maggots? that has on its surface the projection of a talking mouth. It is obviously the most luscious, even decadent, of the group but also the most unsettling because it takes the skull outside of its solely symbolic context and reanimates it in a way that suggests earlier representations of a “ living” skeleton: the grim reaper as well as the image of mortal illness.
TO: As I mentioned before, the skull is an ever-present icon, but it became important for me to shift the context. I wanted to “ dress up” death, if you will, for different occasions. In the piece that you mention, Hole, I tipped my hat to the sixteenth century and the question of afterlife, using a moralizing, warning tone from a Latin text found on the painting Vanitas: Still-Lifeby Barthel Bruyn the Elder, which is on the back of a portrait of Jan-Loyse Tissier from 1524. Translated, it reads: “ Everything decays with death/Death is the final boundary of all things.” On this skull I fused and altered this idea with other references to evoke the sensation of life as dream from which we wake into death, and Tracy Leipold’ s mouth is seen projected on the piece, performing wonderfully in Latin and English.
There is very little spoken text in these works, but I still wanted to create the sense of a dialogue, as if death couldn’ t only talk to us but that we could also talk back. I really became fascinated by the ways that text was incorporated into the vanitas paintings. Language was somehow worked into the design, for example a winged figure that often holds up a scroll over someone’ s head. This spurred me to include the scrolling or rolling text as a layer in these works, and I really like the way that the moving texts crawls over the three-dimensional objects. This forces one to read it on many different levels, to focus on the process of reading, how text really works, which is something I’ ve often discussed with my friend Constance DeJong. In the process of reading, the context of sound and image are changed, which was really a breakthrough for me.
EJ: Fantastic Prayers, which we talked about earlier in relation to your affinity for collaboration, has a long and rather complex history. It is one of your biggest and most complex projects to date and has been seen in various incarnations, the seeds of which can be found in many of your earliest videos. It started as a performance with the writer Constance DeJong and the composer Stephen Vitiello and blossomed into a CD-ROM and then one of the first artists’ projects for the Dia Center’ s Web site. How did it all begin?
TO: The overall approach that DeJong, Vitiello, and I took for Fantastic Prayers was based on the idea of a landscape being distorted into a dreamlike flux between actual location and a narrative that had an almost physical presence. But first we should go back to the beginning as you suggested in your question, in other words, how did it all start? Sound experiments with them evolved into other projects, like the talking light bulbs in M? nster.
As you know, Constance and I have been friends and collaborators for many years and we have written, videotaped, and performed numerous works together. I don’ t like to perform very much? I suffer from terrible stage fright? but I really enjoy putting together live and pre-recorded material, for example in my 1988— 89 installationRelatives , which toured the U.S. and Europe with, basically, a television set and Constance. It was a very simple performance piece in terms of technology, but the idea was to present an electronic narrative in opposition to the very human act of storytelling: Constance and the TV together for one hour.
Several years later, the Dia Center invited us to do a performance and, as it happened, we had been working on a new improvisational piece. As Relatives became “ locked” in time, we decided to develop a new body of material in several units of three to five minutes each and then shuffle them like cards: images of ghosts, insects, a figure falling down and getting up, and so on. The idea was to play them randomly like songs, and they had a very “ can’ t read this” feel to them. We were trying to get away from the idea of a linear narrative, and it ended up being very experimental with some great moments. In the process we went through a lot of material, something like three different performances in three different places. One involved live video feeds and simultaneous broadcasts at R.P.I.
In 1994 we were invited to the Rushmore Theater Festival in upstate New York, and we produced a collaborative installation inside an old mansion, where we occupied the smoking room/library with projections and a text and sound piece that related to the early performance material, for example, ghosts projected onto the gingerbread ceiling. Constance also performed her “ moon” text, which was projected onto a doll’ s head
placed on a dusty book shelf. Outside, Stephen Vitiello placed speakers playing his music and bits of recorded texts in trees and shrubs all around the grounds. At the entrance to the grounds, in an old security/ticket booth, we put a large head with the projection of Tony Conrad’ s face. He was playing a director, spouting orders, which turned out to be really funny. At night, the insects were attracted to his mug, at least the light of the TV monitor, and they created nice little silhouettes. The big surprise of this installation, though, was Constance’ s and Stephen’ s sound work, which both of them had done before and are doing a lot more of now? really wonderful sound installations. But the thing that really struck me about all this was the incredible verisimilitude of the sounds even when played outside. With cheap car speakers and a CD player, you can get people believing that someone is talking directly to them. Our minds are very attuned to mechanically- produced sounds indoors, but outside there is so much ambient noise, which is usually filtered out, that synthetic sound passes as real. Not that this is a goal in itself, but it’ s a simple back door to pass through in order to get a certain level of public engagement.
So, Fantastic Prayers developed through these various incarnations and we began to think of it as a modular process. When we were invited to perform in the Dan Graham architectural pavilion on the roof of the Dia Center, we saw it as a fresh opportunity to regenerate and to bounce off some of Dan’ s ideas. This led to a sort of sci- fi/architectural/arcadian phantasmagoria that took place at sunset in Dan’ s half-mirrored structure overlooking the Chelsea skyline, west towards the Hudson River and New Jersey. Unfortunately, the performance was scheduled in May, and once the sun set, even though it was very beautiful, it became so cold that Stephen had trouble playing his guitar and Constance was shivering. This meant that the audience was really tested by our hypnotic ambient-performed installation, since they were frozen and ready to die by the end of it. The whole experience was really freaky, because not only were we experimenting with things that were very much at the edge of “ entertainment,” but we were almost killed by the temperature!
After this, Dia was very supportive of the whole project and realized that the work went beyond performance, so they helped us to design a very early Web site with texts and video clips. I’m pleased that the site is still on-line there, and I think that Dia wants to keep it in its original state until they can show the new version when the CD-ROM is finished.
At this point, however, Fantastic Prayers took a turn into the deep, dark digital world. Dia was interested in producing a record, but really more than a record, of our “ event.” We talked about videotaped documentation or a catalogue, but the CD-ROM seemed like a perfect vehicle for us and our material; it would satisfy many aspects of our collaboration and, of course, would allow us to continue experimenting and generating new material, which was a top priority. First, I wanted to thoroughly go over the technical end of the project, so it took several months of looking at what others had done with CD- ROMs and understanding the parameters of the form, which were, and still are, in a constant flux. Once we had a grasp on the rules, which include the fact that no two things can move at the same time, that no more than X amount of video is possible at that particular resolution, and so on. . . . So, given these strictures, it’s not sure when we’ll finish? maybe next month, maybe next year.
In reaching the final phase of Fantastic Prayers , which had little to do with the other phases in any overt way but everything to do with them in other ways, it became clear that the whole was a building process, that in the end it had begun to morph into something that took on a life of its own. The three of us? Constance, Stephen, and I?
have too much respect for primary forms not to fully indulge in all the possibilities. And, early on, we understood that computers? outside of live communication? are elegant archives that can exploit the natural drive to explore, to look around that corner or under that stone. This might infuriate some of our more theoretical computer friends because, at least now, artificial intelligence, interactivity, virtual reality, and the pipe dreams of the PR people at MIT are just not yet a reality. Some day, yes, but now all you get out of a computer is what you put into it. That’ s it. And, what you put into it is hard work, really hard. Putting in millions of hours for something that people will look at for a second! So, we also knew it had to be big; the word “ big” meaning the sort of experience it would elicit, the time, the space or psychological distance that could be covered, the sound, the words, and the pictures, as well as the ways that all of them could be recombined had to be Big. So we wanted to pack our archive as densely as possible and to use as many ways as possible to present data.
Even though I’m only one of the three in this (and can only speak for myself), I had the overall feeling that this CD-ROM is a battle between the forces of entropy and structure. That struggle infuses a compendium of each of our primary individual themes: sex, drugs, toxicity, creativity, color, dreams, spirits, sounds, decay, media, emotions, the novel, water, the I-Ching, music, cameras, Tracy Leipold, landscape, architecture, fashion, voices, things that stick in your throat, rock videos, rock stars, friends, graveyards, naked people, words, trash, VR nodes, and an old cup. Things break down into elements only to recombine into new narrative strands. Information, words, and images cast off one reading in search of a new meaning while, ideally, the “ players” guide this process and it builds within them, reflecting their personal pathway through the material. I’ve always felt that the work does not exit without the viewer, and here we have a very ephemeral bunch of 0s and 1s with no chance of coming to life without you. A giant house of cards.
Each screen was conceived as a different place with different laws and logic that operate within its parameters? we tried as best as we could to link the interactivity to the content of each. There is only so much you actually can do with existing technology, and that is always part of the equation. For example, the “ Empathy Wheel” was the first and most simple click-response, which worked with the carnival graphics of colorful bands surrounding an image of Tracy. We wanted to fuse a game structure with that of a psychological test. During “ play” a click on any band triggers a different emotional expression from her (there are roughly twenty). Once you decide to move on, the screen calculates your personal empathy level, from one through ten, by the nature of your playing.
Navigation was a big part of the creative process: jumping from place to place through various devices; for example, one clicks on an eye on the left and there are major screen jumps. We tried to use changing mouse icons and to design a sense of flow, of motion, into each screen.
I have always hated the look of computer-generated spaces, with their texture and slick surfaces as if trying to make something convincing? replication for replication’ s sake? but for no apparent reason. Most of the stuff I’ve seen would have been better if shot as live action, so that’ s what we did. We used a video and photographic base and let the computer do what it does best, which is to manipulate the material. In the “ walls that speak” section, we built a classical 3-D room? a digital clich? that was quite a challenge but inevitable in computer-land. I wanted to short-circuit the process by mapping photographic two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space onto
the “ walls” of the computer, which is based in 3-D space; in other words, we took pictures of the peeling paint on the mint green interior walls of this weathered, old abandoned house from the fifties near Bard College and then mapped the photos onto the 3-D model of a room. The result contradicts a typical depiction of space and turns it into a composite space, which we found humorous. Someday, I’d love to see it built.
Inside this chamber, architecture is treated as if a recording medium? as if it could capture and fix everything that happened there. Domestic espionage. You can see into the walls as they melt into darkness and sound; you can see through all the cracks and pipes, and one gaping wall even leads to an aerial view of the suburbs where Joe Gibbons orates about psychotropic drugs. Julia Scher buzzes as a flock of lips overdubs one of her amazing monologues. Mike Kelley appears pressed, muffled, and peering out of the wall and reads a poem that I wrote about a voyeur. A creaking door turns into a song written and performed by Stephen, Constance, and me.
Ludlow Street, where I used to live (as did many other artists), became another location because the street seemed the perfect device for connecting material, experiencing it. This was just what we wanted for such a loosely associated and discordant group of ideas. As players move down the street by pushing the mouse, they discover that the graffiti is really the title of DeJong’ s novel I.T.I.L.O.E.,and they can read all the hundred or so pages by clicking on each of them. A pile of trash flows into an endless stack of photos of trash troops. One can go up to the roof and see a panorama? night or day. Vitiello’ s sounds and song fragments cascade out of nowhere or from a car radio. At the end of the block, there is a phone able to predict the future (a keypad can be used to cast the numbers of the I-Ching). Constance went to great lengths to translate the I-Ching, so it’ s really happening, it’ s really predicting the player’ s future.
The “ jacket” screen was for the most part designed by Constance, and it is an idea she’ s been working on for some time but was never able to resolve? either printed text or spoken word? so the open, associative structure of the computer really worked for her. Nonlinear language is an idea that has been thrown around for some time, but as Constance has said, “ You can’t be truly nonlinear in a linear form, such as a book or videotape.” So, this screen was an opportunity to move in that direction. With art- making, it often works that way: themes, obsessions float and recur for years and, with a little luck, they all come together. The jacket is an abstraction of a garment that is actually reconstructed by the player to reveal its origins in a narrative form: the design, buttons, thread, dye, and so on spin a tale in wild and intricate detail. Constance worked up some storyboards that were very loose and colorful but at the same time very detailed. During all the years that I’ve known Constance, I had never seen her draw anything, and it was a window into a whole new side of her creativity. The drawings were so good that they ended up as the basis for a number of the subsections. Even though we worked with the design firm ReVerb in Los Angeles, and I shot some still-photo animation and video (the filmmaker Mark LaPore also donated a few images from India), it is the text that drives this screen with the player taking on the challenge of decoding the object.
The jacket design was also a good example of how the three of us often switched rolls completely. Like Constance, Stephen had a lot of ideas for the visuals (he is very attuned the visuals as he has created so many soundtracks and worked on countless videos). Also, all three of us are very interested in sound, and Constance and Stephen are now working on a sound installation. But in Fantastic Prayers , Stephen is largely responsible for the sound tracks, which are a unifying factor throughout. His style of guitar-effects music is both sweet and gothic, and it keeps things floating from one section to another, meshing
with the images and language in a style uniquely his.
One screen is a close-up exploration? one might say a forensic reading? of the chemical traces found in human hair, which looks really crazy? like a psychedelic landscape? when magnified a thousand times. We were attracted to it because any toxins or drugs introduced into the body leave a trace/record in hair as it grows. This chronological structure was attractive because it’ s like an organic archive of narrative conjecture
flowing through the body. We arrived at a microscopic graphic format and injected various contemplations on some of our favorite subjects. (Kristin Lucas appears as a casualty of acid? great performance.)
The “ Natatorium” screen is based on a 1930s-looking shell of a structure that once housed some sort of swimming pool and auditorium (but now occasionally acts as shelter to the homeless, to drug addicts, or teenagers up to no good) near the East River in New York City. It’ s a wonderful structure and very New York in that it is covered with layers of beautiful graffiti that almost visually obliterate the structure itself: language breaking it down, dissolving it into its component building blocks. The tags become transformative, turning the building into language and language into color like the essence of an entropic struggle. Working with this idea of transformation, we created a kinetic VR node through which the player can peel off layers of rot, insects, money, worms, children’ s drawings, video images, and architectural details. Our main design collaborator, Stephen Dean, worked closely with us to invent a mosaic of cascading images in a programming system that is really unique. At one point here, the player can zoom into the pixels until they become large blocks of color, each with its own number. The colors can be played like a musical instrument using the mouse like a sampler to make your own music; it’ s very computer, very abstract. Negotiating the technology can work for or against you, and Dean was great at turning things around for the better. For example, we wanted to use some entropic video clips that I had collected, but they didn’ t work graphically, so we came up with the idea of using these clips as a series of stills controlled by the player, though it has a look of something altogether different. I was so happy with the results. Even though Dean endured much suffering, he did a tremendous amount of work; as they say, “ every bit of it is on the screen.”
Another one of Constance’ s long-term obsessions is a “ place where lost things go.” It’ s a humorous place that we have all imagined one time or another but here there are also somber overtones that reflect the stupid and mystical fact of losing an object. In the end,
it becomes a kind of metaphor for mortality: that dilemma of having something (or someone) vanish, like magic. It takes the form of a large pile of junk that keeps getting bigger and unfolding into sounds and visions. We were looking for that fragile bond we have with our things and how it can be stretched thin, then broken like in a Salvation Army thrift store where the dust is thick with sickly sweet memories, disposable love stories, and free-form melancholia. As the player digs into it with the mouse, he/she can animate lost objects with the whole process being one of a tentative reattachment? however fleeting? of meaning, of context, of flesh and blood, before finally letting go. In following the archival feel to this we embedded a subscreen into this one that was of approximately seventy photographs taken of objects from the Chevalier Jackson Collection of “ Objects Swallowed or Inhaled,” which we discovered in Philadelphia’ s M? tter Museum. These were combined with corresponding medical texts and poetic commentary made by Constance. (The DIA Center was instrumental in gaining access
and permission to photograph this arcane collection.)
The “ Graveyard” screen is our phantasmagoric media deconstruction. It was shot over
two years and “ bookends” the project for me; it was one of the first things we started with for the project, later adding more complicated material. We always had this crazy idea of relating ghosts to media, and in the performance we had planned, there were these elliptical death scenes (sort of James Brown up and down) that never made it into the final version. So in the CD-ROM, we continued developing the death/media relationship and the latter’ s ability to pre-form fundamental reanimation and provoke the uncanny. The inverse also might be considered: media as a negative drain on the life force, with the contract between it and the viewer put in question. I included shots of people passively watching a movie screen, which I used in System for Dramatic Feedback. So things have moved in and out of this project, and it has been densely creative and inclusive; the three of us used our personal archives and spun off lots of material that either did not fit or were turned into other forms, such as drawings and photographs. In this screen, things came together: past, present, and cicadas? that large, sluggish insect that appears around every fifteen years and overruns the Northeast, eating, flying, mating and, above all, making that very loud, high-pitched drone twenty-four hours a day. Linda Post and I became fascinated by them for their Biblical connections. So, as the player moves through this graveyard screen, he/she is faced with a cicada on a gravestone and gets to choose whether to kill it or let it live.
Constance and I share a great respect for some gothic novels, like Frankensteinand, particularly, Bram Stoker’ s Dracula , which we had read together and analyzed in awe. Some years later Joe Gibbons and I had shot extensive video footage in a cemetery near Franklin Park in Boston, where Joe had been kicked out several times. As it turns out, the security guards had complained about all the amateur rock video people who had tried to film there, disturbing the mourners. I found this? kids feeding their rock star fantasies and death fascination in this graveyard? inspirational and the scenario so indicative of media culture, with the camera as the perfect metaphor for the whole system. The apparatus’ s aperture seems to me the dividing point between two states, but what these states are exactly remains unclear. In retrospect, my work with the skull, the still life, and the camera obscura seems to have come out of the screen.
For the aerial views of sites around Williams College and North Adams, Massachusetts, Michael Govan provided the smooth piloting. I love the feeling of flying, like the aviator in those military computer games, so we made a simulation with real footage, and the player can fly around a composite graveyard inside the computer. To reinforce a sense of a rock video shoot gone wrong, we used a cinematic grammar based on pans and zooms but with some special effects, too. There were some excellent cameos in this section by the likes of Kim Gordon, who hoots and screams; David West, who flies; Catherine Dill, who reads the book of the dead; David Bowie, who plays the mad director morphing in and out of the flowers on a tomb; Jim Shaw, Diana Thater, Kelley Mason, Niagara, and the Paris catacombs make brief appearances.
EJ: I remember many years ago reading about the band called The Poetics that you had formed with fellow students at Cal Arts in the late seventies. At that time, I thought it was very much indicative of that decade, when artists were actively trying to work through some of the formal constraints of minimal and conceptual art by moving among disciplines and media as a way of figuring out how to use their conceptual heritage but in new and different ways. But I also thought that your participation in The Poetics shed a lot of light on the performative base of many of your early tapes and, in fact, even more
recent works in which you are often the sole performer in some of your “ talking heads.” When you decided to remix some of The Poetics’ songs, resuscitate some of the early videos, and re-create the performances for your collaboration with Mike Kelley in Barcelona and at Documenta X (1997), it became not merely a reconstruction of those actions but an elaborate revisionist look at the art and music? and its critical
reception? of that time. As a result it became a complex melding of fact and fiction. The late nineties seemed a particularly ripe moment for this type of revisionism, since fashion was just then beginning to romanticize seventies counterculture as a quasi- mythical movement of unbound freedom and creativity. And the paintings that you and Mike made for the project also came at a time when new interest in that medium, especially its connections with electronically produced and manipulated imagery, was on the rise. Was this project an important turning point for you?
TO: In The Poetics Project, the story is the art work, so where do I begin? As you say,
it’ s a mix of fact and fiction, and in retrospect, I wish that there were more facts available to the viewer, but ironically it’ s a matter of sound mixing the information that we had, and the viewer had to be willing to spend some time with it so that it could “ seep in.”
Let me begin the facts as I see them. There was a band called The Poetics that Mike Kelley and I started when we were at Cal Arts. It was a project that began as a rock
band? with me usually singing and playing the organ, Mike on the drums as well as other things. We also produced radio, performance, dance, and sound pieces. We were a loose- knit group, and the members changed between 1977 and 1980. I moved to New York in 1980, and after that the group’ s activities declined. As you suggest, the seventies were a time of expansion in the art world, and we were definitely picking up on the so-called post-studio ideas so prevalent at the time at Cal Arts. Conceptual art was and is very important for me and set the tone for The Poetics’ strategy as well as my own work apart from the group. We were all over the place musically: punk, psychedelic, no-wave, noise, and sound track. At the time I was very interested in the master, Bernard Herrmann, and Nino Rota, and I was doing all my own sound tracks at the time.
After we drifted apart, Mike and I talked several times about putting out some sort of recording of the group. I had kept all the band’ s materials because I was the one who recorded all of our practices; I did this so that I could listen to my voice and to the songs’ structures, etc. Unfortunately, this was all done on fifty-cent K-Mart tapes in a ten-dollar cassette deck? though we did do a few 1/4 sessions and once went into a real studio. So, I decided to dig up some of the old tapes, and we eventually compiled and released a three-CD set that captures some of our best sounds and some solo stuff, too. The filtering and re-mixing was a major effort, and some of the material was too degraded to even use, but who knows, maybe one day we will re-record that lost material. Around the same time, I was doing an extensive drawing project for Bernhard Balkenhol of the Kasseler Kunstverein, so I had been looking through old shoe boxes full of stuff: thousands of papers that I wanted to preserve, to date, to photograph. Among these materials I found
“ The Notebook,” which is a black and white, marble-covered, lined notebook that was The Poetics’ bible. Inside, there were notes for all the lyrics and performances, even some installation and sculpture designs. I had been focusing so much on the musical
ideas of the band that I had forgotten all the other elements that were evident in the notebook. For me, it was a window into the visual side of the group.
In 1977 I was only dimly aware that there was an art school band thing. I knew that bands like the Talking Heads had come out of art and that many British bands had been formed
in art school. Through the years, this phenomenon interested me, and even when I was teaching it still continued. Part of The Poetics Project was historic, and we wanted to look at it in that context: to try and understand it and process it overtly. From this point of view, the project fit well into my research habits even though I have never been interested in autobiography. I usually like to keep a little more distance in my work and find that the individual as subject is interesting only as an interchangeable sign. Besides, The Poetics experience had some very painful moments for me, which I was not interested in reliving. Of course, the other side of The Poetics Project was personal. We wanted to look at the material produced by the group? it was so long ago and there was so much material that we had forgotten how much we were attracted to the perversity of completing something that was twenty years old. But, there was plenty of material to dig into on both the personal and the historic levels, and that became our working premise: to do an installation based on our experience in and around The Poetics.
Mike and I decided to present the project in 1997 at the new Richard Meier-designed Museu d’ Art Contemporani in Barcelona. For the exhibition we decided to make a minimal arrangement of large video projectors attached like flags to tall poles that stood in the center of a room with very high ceilings. This was our first attempt to use The Poetics material for a collaborative project. I have been very interested in the idea of re- enactment, and Mike and I decided to play around with a “ pseudo-documentary” as a way of developing the work. We both had vivid memories of the places where we had worked and played as a group? important Poetics locations? and we decided to try to visit and shoot them on video. Mike did a lot of the research since he still lives in California, and he even went to shoot material at Cal Arts as well as some old apartments, houses, and restaurants were we hung out. We even went to a few “ swap meets” : those great markets of used goods that were inspiration for us and a way to collect art supplies. Then we looked for a compound that at the time had been inhabited by artists, where we used to party and the band had played. We looked and looked for the place but never found it, so instead we decided to shoot the search itself. The journey, then, became the subject matter: looking for the lost architecture, lost locations, lost events, and it was all very poetic. California is one big changing set without a past.
Mike and I shot some interviews with Poetics members or friends and we had them recount different performances or memories of the music we had played. I masked their faces with a digital video block effect as if they were criminals or afraid of being recognized while they made their comments. Mike also shot the famous Vasques Rocks in the desert, which was a charged location on many levels since it has been used by the film industry as a prime location for westerns or sci-fi flicks. I then “ psychodelicized” this footage during the editing in homage to the acid parties of the period. Mike wrote a text that I can only describe as based on the relationship between personal history and music, which he had his old landlord (who is an actor) perform on an old synthesizer? very annoying and in keeping with our music. We even used footage of the sound mixing of the three-CD set. Finally, I hired Robert Appleton to play a generic Poetic, and he re- enacted some very simple rock videos. Since most of The Poetics stuff predates MTV, I wanted some very in-studio, chroma key— looking lip synching, so I collected some footage of LA freeways and some video that I had shot of Cal Arts in 1977 and used these as backdrops for Robert’ s performances. In them he does some rock moves, some stripping moves (which I used to do) and singing in his underwear, all to our songs. He does a great job of it and it’ s very funny. The whole thing ended up as a mixture of time and landscape, reality and fiction, with the result being cryptic yet generic and something
that could seem familiar to most people.
In the installation, we had at least three of The Poetics’ tracks phasing and blasting at once. It almost obliterated the interviews, so later I added subtitles. This became the Barcelona version of The Poetics Project, which was later shown at the Patrick Painter Gallery in LA. Mike had special screens made to resemble the walls in Barcelona. Later it was shown in New York at the Lehman Maupin Gallery, where we did a special horizontal arrangement of the original Barcelona poles and added some drawings.
As the Barcelona version took shape we were invited to propose an elaboration of the project to Documenta X. I wanted to move into a more graphic, sculptural direction that would key into the conceptual belief that the idea is the work and that it exists once it is put on paper. I had been thinking about this a lot when I heard that Bruce Nauman was showing works from the seventies that had never been realized before. I was familiar with this practice, and it seemed natural to take material from The Poetics’ notebooks and have it made to specification. We used this as a starting point but also as an inversion of the conceptual training that had turned me away from painting. There was also an economic factor involved in working with hand-painted panels. The panels were references to the standard flat backdrops for performances or television scenery. I had looked into making large photographic or printed images but it was cheaper to paint them by hand, and I liked the perversity of this as well as taking brush in hand again.
Since Mike and I live three thousand miles apart, we divided up the work and decided that some of the panels would be collaborative; in other words, we would visit each other and work together for some, while others would be individually authored. While I could go on about the sources of the images, the basic themes were ex-Catholicism, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The results are highly coded on both the private and public levels. For example, I took very small bits of stick figures, which I was really into twenty years before, and enlarged them from an eighth of an inch to four feet. This change of scale gave them an abstract, forensic feel, like a personal gesture that had exploded. I also made the notebook into a monolith, with camouflaged images of Brian Eno blended into the pattern.
The Pole Dance, which was a dance that we did in 1978, was projected onto the notebook. It was a dance that the choreographer Anita Pace had reconstructed from notes and memories; she did a fantastic job, which I shot as a classic, two-camera, black and white video documentary that lasted about thirty minutes.
So, you get a general idea of how much detail went into the project. We experimented with layer upon layer of video projections onto paintings with sound coming out of some of them. For example, we made an installation of “ battle” paintings with speakers embedded in their surfaces; these two faced each other with one, a green plaid canvas, playing a commissioned solo by Arto Lindsay called Why I Love Guitar,and the other, a glittering human heart, in which Mike does a solo called Why I Love Drums.
During the process of working on the project I became more and more interested in the music of the period, especially how vital and creative it was and how it helped blur the boundaries between sound and vision. As you mentioned, it was an expansive time and people were exploding all kinds of preconceptions. The conceptualist motto about form following content and the privileging of idea over craftsmanship changed the way we thought about what we could make. In retrospect, this was a kind of extreme idealism and a little in the clouds, but what do you expect? For me, the energy of that time can be summed up in the concept of crossover itself. The Poetics even produced a piece for the radio, which was profound for me, as it meant getting the work out there into cars and
houses. In the seventies, artists were escaping the studio; they were interested in making art in more popular, public forms like music, performance, film, and video. The idea of crossover was and remains an important strategy for me. In fact, one of my early fantasies was to get art on TV. One could argue that this impulse is repeated generation after generation: the dadaists, situationists, pop artists. One might even say that these experiments never entered the canon of art history but rather it is only the objects that survive.
As I look back on the last twenty years, there are certain histories that have been lost? a lot of performance, video, and computer art? and if the ways of working survive, there is very little committed to print. This hole was the impetus behind the historic side of The Poetics Project. I wanted to do some primary research into what artists of that time were thinking, so I made a list of my favorites and set out to interview them. Most were pleased to be involved, and it was a great personal pleasure to meet so many innovative artists. Mike was interested in involving critics as well and was going to do a series of West Coast interviews, which he still might do. I did the East Coast with the help of David West, a friend and fellow artist, and occasionally Linda Post. These interviews were an homage to these artists but also act as a foil to false assumptions that the project was self-promotion. Right now I’m working these interviews into a book and will release them on videotape later this year.
In the end, I learned quite a lot from the project and as you mentioned became reacquainted with painting, which I have since continued to do seriously. But the real pleasure was to do the interviews and to work with Mike again. He has such an expansive view; it was a real journey. The reaction to the project, however, was really surprising. The mixture of information and noise did not make it an easy read (I remember that even in 1978 we would clear the room with our music), and one New York critic called The Poetics exhibition “ the most irritating” of the season, which was a real honor for me.