Joanna Warsza and Florian Malzacher: You are the initiator of the Occupy Museums group, associated with Occupy Wall Street. First you organised a protest march to MoMA, and later you occupied the New Museum and other art institutions run by the 1 %. You staged a general assembly in front of the museums, to read your manifesto where the injustices of the arts and culture system are listed. When the director of MoMA asked what it is that you wanted, you replied that you had no demands. “But,” you said, “we would continue to occupy the museum in order to open up a conversation about economic injustice and abuse of the public values for the gain of the 1 % in the art world.” Why shall we occupy museums?
Noah Fischer: Occupy Museums is a collective, which runs by consensus. I initiated the first Occupy Museums action in October 2011. Our group formed soon after that. Every action and official text we create is authored by all of us, and we don’t have a single leader. Functioning in solidarity is the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We are trying to forget about the drive toward individualism and hierarchy, which is so much a part of the capitalistic regime. We also believe in individual autonomy. First I want to make it clear that these are my own opinions; I can’t speak for the whole Occupy Museums group.
So, why do we Occupy Museums? Today museums are an important part of the neo-liberal system, which we are protesting on Wall Street. Museums are like temples of this system, actually; they reproduce the logic of the system, reify its symbols, and are financially dependent on it. Actions by Occupy Museums are about opening up a very large, honest, transformative conversation about the presence of money and power in the world of art and culture.
And why museums but not private galleries? Because museums hold cultural authority and carry out a supposedly purely public function that galleries and art fairs do not have. Currently, the main art-world paradigm in the US is a private market of artists that are represented by a hierarchy of galleries, and these galleries want to get their artists into the Whitney Biennial or the New Museum or, eventually, into the Museum of Modern Art. Therefore, an artist’s career and markets are built up through the cultural authority of the museums. Nothing else counts but your symbolic and financial position, and museums have the power to shape this. The problem is that, just like on Wall Street, the wealthiest 1 % control nearly everything. They engage in philanthropy, of course, and sit on museum boards, and these are often also the mega-collectors who influence the markets. Actually, the whole arts infrastructure has been organising around these few individuals in the last 30 years. They concentrate political power and social prestige in their hands, perhaps even more than money, if this is possible. But real, essential culture needs distance from this power and influence in order to grow and thrive, otherwise culture becomes a luxury commodity. What will hopefully come out of the Occupy Museums is a re-thinking about the current state of culture, which is very close to a luxury item for the wealthiest. How can we reconnect our work as artists to the experience of ordinary people—the 99 %? We have already found a way to connect as artists to the spirit of protest in the air. For the first stage we are publicly defining cultural injustices—inviting people to call them out in open assemblies at the museums. A lot of information about the corruption and conflicts of interest on museum boards arises from the participants in these assemblies. But maybe the most important thing Occupy Museums is doing is publically demonstrating, through solidarity, that we artists need not be silenced by these powerful institutions that wield so much cultural authority, just because the 1 % sits on their boards. We are learning not to fear, but to act.
The first museums you went to were MoMA and the National History Museum. Why these two?
MoMA is an iconic New York museum, because it is “the one and only” Museum of Modern Art. And New York is a city that is supposed to have made its name on the international stage through modern art. MoMA, therefore, is very much a temple, a holy space where the local gods such as Pollock and Newman dwell. It is also transparently financially corrupted. Two MoMA trustees, James Niven and Richard Oldenberg, also have connections to the board of Sotheby’s. These trustees help to inflate prices in the art auctions, and they presumably have some vote or influence about what is shown in the museum. This simultaneous conflict of interest should be unacceptable and considered as abuse, but in the US now, it’s become accepted—we also see it in the revolving door between the US government and the biggest corporations such as banks. But people would be surprised to find these problems associated with museums, even though the art market is extremely unregulated. And it is precisely because MoMA is iconic and also beloved and trusted by many that Occupy Museums decided to go after it and make it into an example. We are going straight to the top, “storming the temple”. In fact, we do not really occupy physical places—we rather occupy people’s consciousness, symbols.
But the Natural History museum is not specifically related to art.
Here we focused on the potential menace of philanthropy. We occupied the Dinosaur wing in the American Museum of Natural History, whose patron, David H. Koch, is the second richest person in New York and a major funder of the ultra right-wing in the US. For this action, we were talking to visitors at the Museum about the ideology associated with his “gifts”. David H. Koch has been the primary funder of the Tea Party, right-wing think tanks, and numerous initiatives which try to negate global warming. Often he has censored climate information in the exhibitions that he sponsors. His father, who built the family fortune, was also a right-wing ideologue in the McCarthy era who used the threat of communism to create a political platform full of racism and bigotry—this is actually the pre-history of the Tea Party. We also discussed how the funding of culture is often used to clean the image of those that make dirty money (Koch makes his money from the oil and energy business, and his companies are known for polluting). At the Museum of Natural History, we created a series of performances followed by a discussion of what alternative models of philanthropy might look like, such as more government support or support from many smaller contributions. Obviously, we are just beginning this discussion.
When the director of MoMA came to talk, you refused. Why? Aren’t you interested in a productive dialogue?
For the first action, we held a General Assembly meeting in front of MoMA and read a manifesto, and then the director and a couple other staff members came down to meet us. They were very nice and said that they support the movement to some extent and asked why we were there. I answered very much in line with the manifesto, that we believe that MoMA is the temple of the 1 %, and our aim is to challenge this concentration of power and wealth, which is crippling our culture and futures as artists. They were surprised and asked for our demands. I said we have no demands, but we are going to continue occupying their museum, which in this case means repeatedly coming back and enlarging the conversation until it is much more visible and spread out. Actually, for a long time, the press kept asking for demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement. So far it has been very helpful for the movement to not have demands. As soon as you have demands, you’re asking those with power to change something finite (a few things), when many feel that the problem is structural. Without demands, we focus more on developing our voice autonomously and building our movement’s solidarity, which is the base of our power. The problems of economic injustice are so big that starting out in a negotiation mode does not make sense.
Later on you also did an action at Lincoln Center in New York …
That was our most triumphant action! The Lincoln Center, supported by David H. Koch and New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg, is a potent symbol of the privatisation of public space and an abuse of cultural authority. As we stated in the press release for the action, “it is no doubt a coincidence that Philip Glass’ opera ‘Satyagraha’, which depicts Gandhi’s early struggle against colonial oppression in India, was revived in the revolutionary 2011. We immediately saw a glaring contradiction in ‘Satyagraha’ being performed while in recent weeks protestors from Occupy Wall Street have been arrested. The juxtaposition was stark. While Bloomberg funds the representation of Gandhi’s pioneering tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience in the Metropolitan Opera House, he simultaneously orders a paramilitary-style raid on the peaceful public occupation of Liberty Park, where protestors are beaten, tear-gassed, and violently arrested.” So, one evening, hundreds of protesters assembled on the steps of Lincoln Center, blocked off from the plaza by police barricades. A few who dared to cross the line were arrested, provoking shouts of “shame, shame, shame!” We took off our shoes—a Gandhian symbol of dignity—and stood barefoot on the cold pavement, conducting our assembly. When the opera ended and the opera audience exited into the plaza, they came upon this strikingly theatrical scene—real, live, non-violent protest, barefoot on the grand steps! Some protesters were chanting “We are the 99 %”, which may have contributed to a sense of separation between these two parallel crowds. Our presence behind the police barricades somehow paralysed the opera audience, making them hesitant to flow toward us, even as we called them to join. Then all of a sudden Philip Glass popped up in the Occupy Wall Street crowd—he had come to read a statement using the “people’s microphone”. He called out the last lines of the opera, a passage from the “Bhagavad Gita”:
When righteousness withers away / And evil rules the land / We come into being / Age after age / And take visible shape / And move / A man among men / For the protection of good / Thrusting back evil / And setting virtue / On her seat again.
In that moment the opera audience had joined us. The buffer zone was gone. We were now one big crowd. Until late into the night we held our general assembly and many people spoke—opera singers who had been recently fired by Lincoln Center in its neo-liberal war against workers, and also Lou Reed was there to express his support.
Occupy Museums is very careful of not being co-opted by any institution. You refuse any collaboration, even if this is how you could reach out.
Since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, co-option has been a major concern, because neo-liberal capitalism knows very well that the best way to kill protest movements is to absorb them into the existing market and to dissolve them or use them for advertising purposes. If we started to negotiate with MoMA, they might say, “You may use the first floor for a special General Assembly, we’ll put it on the website.” In this way, they might try to throw us a bone before they deal with critique we raise. And then while negotiating, we might have our ego pumped and feel special because these famous gatekeeping institutions have opened their gates for us just a little.
It is of course not so black and white because many people who are in the movement work for art institutions; some are even powerful curators, critics, and well-known artists. We of course also need to find allies to change structures of the institutions from the inside. The question is how to proceed in this while keeping our clarity of critique? Now we are reflecting deeply on how we may interact with institutions, which are just groups of people, to develop and apply our vision of economic justice, but being very mindful of how we proceed.
I feel that before we join the people who run the museums, we should join in solidarity with the wider communities of New York City—artists and art lovers who are not so privileged. New York City has the same wealth disparity as Honduras. It is one of the richest and the most class-divided cities in the world. It has not much of a middle class, but a lot of very wealthy and a lot of very poor people. It also has many extremely rich artists and a vast number of poor artists. Tourists visit the galleries in Chelsea and don’t understand that they are in one of the poorest cities in the US, with the poverty hidden in the outskirts. Those are the economic and racial barriers, which have been built up for generations, that we have to break. It’s the key part of the process for real change. We must bring together wider communities that usually do not hang out together in the art world, and change the class and race segregation that we see in culture, even if this takes lots of work and lots of time.
And why not reach out to the 1,000 people who are coming to the Natural History Museum every day anyway? Or the daily visitors of MoMA? Those are the ready-made audiences.
The museum-going audience is always invited to take part in our actions. As we saw at Lincoln Center, their decision as a group to join the protest gave our action much of its strength. So we are definitely outreaching and engaging with this existing art-audience, too. But we are careful to maintain our stance as activists. We can engage an audience, but we don’t force people—it has to be their choice. Look how people consume culture as a product. That’s this “consumerist subconscious” which homogenises and unites the whole reality under the logo of a consumable product. I think our job is to stay awake and critical, to keep the tension of the moment going, and people will join us.
If you were the director of MoMA, what would you do in these circumstances?
It would be cool for the MoMA director to join us in an open conversation with our group. Curators at MoMA are used to having their asses kissed by artists, but maybe they would be interested in a new dynamic where everyone is equal, where people are focused on justice and mass consciousness rather than just on individual competitive gain? They could join the discussion, because then we could find out—outside the power relations—what they think as individuals. Many people want to see big changes in our world—I’m sure some museum directors do, too. We all need to get started, so they could begin by meeting us if they want. There is nothing stopping them—our group is open.
So what must institutions that would like to join be prepared to face?
They’d have to be ready to step into the mud. They’d have to be ready for a long, uncomfortable conversation. Our movement calls to question the structure of the museum boards and the flow of capital itself within culture. It calls on everyone to study their own privilege and work together to change a world that is so divided by access to money and power. We have to unlearn lots of capitalist conditioning to be able to work together. We have to spend a really long time with these conversations, be ready to fail, stay away from the easy traps of market-friendly shows and celebrity artists that we think everyone wants. We need to practice transparency and fairness in our working process. We should be aware that power and hierarchy are always to be found in human society. We have to challenge it. If we do not experiment and get messy, we cannot start finding answers. We cannot make demands right now—we need to change our minds first, then we can create a parallel economy with freedom rather than oppression as a basis.
Forty years ago the Art Workers’ Coalition, an association of artists, filmmakers, writers, critics, and museum personnel successfully put pressure on New York City’s museums—notably the Museum of Modern Art—to implement various reforms. For instance, they sought a less exclusive exhibition policy, one that should include women artists and artists of colour, and they emphasised the importance of taking a moral stance on the Vietnam War. Moreover, the coalition prevailed on MoMA and other museums to implement a free-admission day that still exists in many institutions. Is it an inspiration?
Yes, and there are other good examples of artists in this tradition, like the Russian Constructivists, the Mexican Muralists, Act Up, and so on. But the Art Workers’ Coalition is very important. In fact, we recently re-occupied MoMA on one of the free nights which are called “Target Free Fridays”. Target is a large US retailing corporation, and everyone thinks that this company invented the idea of free museum days. One goal for this action was to let people know that artists (Art Workers’ Coalition) invented it, that there is a history of artists standing up for the 99 %; and another was to stand in solidarity with a group of union workers. There is an art handlers’ union, which works for Sotheby’s auction house. Sotheby’s was trying to take away their health-care and cut their pay, and when they tried to negotiate, Sotheby’s locked them out of work. So, since MoMA has a close relationship with Sotheby’s, we occupied MoMA to put some pressure on the board members to support the workers. We held a general assembly in front of Diego Rivera’s show and read a revolutionary text signed by Rivera and André Breton in 1938. We held an assembly with hundreds of artists in the main atrium of MoMA where a huge banner was displayed that stated “When Art Is Just a Luxury, Art Is a Lie!” This time, MoMA left us alone. I think that kicking out a bunch of artist activists on a free night initiated by artist activists (Art Workers’ Coalition) would have been a public relations disaster for the museum. For a couple of hours, we transformed MoMA into a forum for active discussion about money and labour in the art world.
The whole interview with Noah Fischer is published in „Camera Austria International“ No 117 (Graz/Berlin), guest edited by Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza. See also www.camera-austria.at.
This interview with Noah Fischer occurred at his gallery exhibit, “Monitor,” at Claire Oliver on November 12th. Interesting to me was how an artist who is accustomed to larger installation-based work turned to the discrete object in a gallery context.
What follows is our conversation, lengthy but focused. So get that cup of tea, and enjoy!
CS: So are these like altars in a way for you? The scale of them is very much like an altar.
NF: Sure, I didn’t think of that but yeah, sure they are, like in Buddhism how idolatrous is an altar anyway? How much are you really bound to that statue? You can put a basketball on the altar and it can still be serious about the world.
CS: Yeah, it’s attending to it, it’s a matter of intending.
NF: Exactly, it’s attending, it’s a commitment to things.
CS: You used that word commitment earlier and in theory the word comes from Sartre’s reaction to the nouveau realiste writers in France. It was literature he was writing about, a politically engaged kind of writing, which is a very sort of specific argument to make about what commitment is.
NF: Yeah, I think Adorno wrote about commitment in the context of the political in an artwork, but I wasn’t actually thinking that way when I use the word, words are, words can be a little full of baggage, and I’m interested in that, I like to engage with the different meanings when they come up, but I was thinking of emptying that word to mean a constant practice, constant engagement. In that sense it’s more like not idealizing or allowing objects to become ideological but also getting personal with them. This is my life, my studio work, and in that sense the objects are more in the tradition of Morandi in the sense of objects that speak to a constant commitment to being an artist and to making work, and the physical nature of that, the commitment to having an artistic life. This is one reason the hand appears persistently in the work.
CS: I used to have a fascination with the word conviction, I was so fascinated by this word because it is so double-sided, such a personal thing but it also means the state and the law. For a long time, like you’re using the word commitment, I was using the word conviction, it was something I thought I could really hold on to. Then I discovered what was -even meaningful and powerful don’t fall into line here – but, beyond conviction, something being beyond conviction is what supports the energy that I put into things.
NF: Those are really…commitment, conviction are good words to think about. I think that Adorno writes about works of art as a crossing line between supporting a cause and just being art. It’s about watching out that your art, that it doesn’t support the wrong cause, to have a certain consciousness of politics in the work. With “Monitor,” it’s simple, it’s a problematic object, in fact it’s hardly an object at all because we don’t notice it, we have a very strange relationship with it…
CS: Yeah, I sleep with my Apple! There was an essay that Lacan wrote, and I’m not a big Lacan reader, and this was written during the Vietnam war, so there’s always a lot of anti-American sentiment, but it’s a great description of the American ego and the automobile, about how the American is attached to this thing as a prosthetic extension of themselves, and looking around the world from their little automobile ego. My Apple feels like an extreme relationship to an object, I’ve never had one like that before. It can have me spellbound for a day straight. And the politics of the iPod, there’s been a lot of really good writing about the danger of such commodities. NF: Oh yeah, there is a danger, and it’s why I got into Apple design specifically because the Apple campaign has managed to insinuate itself deeply into the lives of people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be materialistic.
CS: Oh, it’s kind of uncool now not to have an iPod.
NF: That’s really important, that’s the thing that’s going on that we don’t know, give it ten or fifteen years it’s going to be whole different thing. Talking about Obama and how he won, by the internet, by the interface, it’s an Apple generation thing, he’s like an Apple, he’s not PC, he’s Mac, and it’s based on an Apple type of interface, and now that he’s President he’s keeping his web site up, I don’t know if you’ve noticed…
CS: I’ve been getting email after the election letting me know that we’re all still a part of it, and they’re keeping their members aware. I think the last email I got was to purchase t-shirts. That’s the first time a presidency has had that kind of connection, and a public. NF: Well, y’know Facebook, the Obama site is basically working like Facebook now, you can have your own – I have my own page on the Obama web site.
CS: Yeah, me too, but I haven’t really done anything with it. It’s more than Facebook, though it’s a blog.
NF: Yeah, it’s the US President, blogging, right? It’s a huge resource, that’s just sitting there, it’s like the fireside chats with FDR on the radio, that era where this squarish object called a radio became the manifest president for a moment. That was a technological era where this one piece of progress embodied the President.
CS: You had to be in a space probably with more people than your one lone self, in a room, listening to sound, and the thing about this is that the president can make his speeches at any place and any time of day, and it is something you do by yourself.
NF: And it’s not only that you’re by yourself, it’s stepping outside of the physical reality and into a world where there’s many many more options going on and that you can get lost in, and you meet other people, but you’re meeting them in this cyberspace.
CS: And they are real relationships, that will never become in real space. So the other thing I was interested in when I was looking at these objects, I guess I’ll call it an “issue” of facingness. Much of the glow of the Apple computer is in that facingness. I was noticing that of course in the wall pieces you have to do that, but in every single one of these, this one is revolving, that one is awry, this I call the ass monitor… NF: That’s a great name for it, I would have called it ass monitor if I’d thought about it.
CS: And here the monitor is a little too high for the face to face thing to happen…these are in a way social objects differently in their facingness than these. So obviously, there is a space issue, these are on the wall, but still there’s something abut them belonging to a category of space differently than the things that are in the room and the avoidance of facingness that occurs in these more everyday objects.
NF: Well, that’s a very good point, obviously I knew that these wall pieces were doing their own thing aside from the furniture studies. It’s a good point you bring up about facingness.
CS: It felt insistent, but you weren’t thinking about it as you were doing it?
NF: Maybe unconsciously insistent, y’know. This work is really, the ideas don’t come first, put it that way, it’s just art work.
NF: It’s just studio, it’s developed in the studio, there’s a lot of ideas behind it, I’m always researching, but I have to let go of that stuff when I’m making the work, instead of pointing things in a certain direction.
CS: Well, we are being asked to attend to the objects, and in attending to them I found this thing about facingness.
NF: It’s a good point and its true that even this is hung high. Well there’s two things going on with it. Everything is about interface, that’s why the show is called “Monitors”. It’s kind of funny, y’know, interface, two faces, your own face facing the face of the thing.
CS: Also face-to-face meetings.
NF: Right, and if the computer is facing away from you there is nothing happening there.
CS: You still try to go in there.
NF: In a way there’s a space in the show I was working with, and I knew about it but you put it in a very good way, and the idea is that…These things here are sort of just barely sculptural, there’s not too much going on really, it’s like a stand-in, almost, for what’s going on here, you’ve got the light, you’ve got the thing…
CS: But the light does a lot, you’ve got this empty casing, and I was saying something earlier about hollowness. NF: It’s like Donald Judd, y’know, it’s a sublime space in there y’know, and a sublime shadow very crisp, adding a new dimension to it.
CS: The word hollowness is something that, I teach the history of contemporary sculpture at Purchase and we were reading Fried’s essay last night and he uses the word hollowness as a very strong condemnation of Minimalism, something can ring hollow, apart from being descriptive, and so there is something about the interfacing that is occurring in this really quirky place in the history of human consciousness let’s say, where this kind of facingness is a subjectivity that’s real, but it’s constructed and fake and not there.
NF: Right, a whole election happened in this space, so how can you argue that’s not real. At the same time it’s so new, in a historical sense, it’s so new, nobody gets it, nobody knows where its going and what it means, nobody can make an ethical, final argument about whether its a good thing or a bad thing in that sense, the jury is out.
CS: One of my favorite zen things is the Sandokai, form and emptiness, the absolute and the relative, and so there is the sense of something that is empty and hollow being where the world is, where it’s happening.
NF: Well, I like that you can use hollowness and emptiness and accept them both in a way, emptiness is good.
CS: In relation to a history of sculpture hollowness is useful as a way to get to emptiness, which is what you started with.
NF: Yeah, it’s interesting to think about those words and the history of those words, the thing is that in this work I don’t think there’s a strong moralistic condemnation of this type of interface, of the hollowness of a sublime digital age for example, because there’s a warmth, this is a beautiful lantern, I chose to use the incandescent bulb, a yellowish glow.
So this is talking about re-presenting, but not much changed. These sculptures here, all in a different way, I was chasing after a space, some kind of interaction, in some sense of the violence of that… CS: Right. Smashing the monitor.
NF: It makes me think of the rubbish piles where the computer monitors are processed, in China for example, so just looking at them even in their pre-junk manifestation as nasty; the toxic part of them, the low kind of, in a way just putting your ass on them, the low chakra aspect, the bodily shit reality.
CS: And sitting on glass and putting yourself at risk in some way.
NF: A little uncomfortable and wanting to bust through, this is not accepting that reality and wanting to bust through it and pop the concept, really,
CS: Wait the violence thing, I want to stop there for a second, because, um, uh, the violence, as you descibed was located in the act of busting these out of their frame and putting them in the chair, but I think of them as violent in the sense that on the one hand these monitors are opaque, they’re shut off, and they’re in some cold but sexual relationship to the body, perhaps, on the other hand you can’t decode them as monitors, so there’s a thing about surveillance as well, so there is a sort of violence about opacity and surveillance that…? I’m playing with this word violence and finding where it is.
NF: Yeah, I kind of threw that out there. I think that there’s a violence in objects, period, and it kind of has to do with the fact that violence of the body has its symptoms, it’s always breaking down, it’s not a story with a happy ending, put it that way. Things ending.
CS: So is planned obsolescence a delusional relationship to death?
NF: Yeah, you could say that, I mean sure,because the idea of continuous new generations of technology, you’re never watching your object slip all the way into death – you’re supposed to replace your cell phone constantly… although I do let mine go all the way to their slow death.
To go back to the surveillance thing you brought up as in “Monitor” – to most people that word right away means surveillance, but I avoided making that obvious show.
CS: So you wanted to return it to this obdurate object…the monitor, without carrying the burdens of surveillance technologies. NF: I made a monitor for a previous show that had a big eye on it, so it was really directed surveillance, mid-century, ’80s surveillance, the problem with that is that it gets very black and white, you’re pointing a finger and saying “big brother is doing this to us, it’s watching us” and no, actually we’re watching ourselves, you can’t really point the finger at surveillance. I’m more interested in saying “nobody’s watching, we have to watch ourselves interacting with the world and ourselves creating strange and destructive relationships. So when I use the word “monitor”, it means monitoring consumption, we are definitely consumers.
CS: How does the use of the word monitor show up in the history of television, do you know, I mean it’s curious that this object would be called a monitor.
NF: I have to humbly say that I didn’t particularly do research of the development of the word.
CS: It’s interesting, the history of this word, I think its right to pull it way from surveillance technologies and give it back to its original meaning, which is more about attending to things, registering things, right, when you monitor your own behavior, labeling.
NF: Right, as you say labeling, monitoring your thought process as it arises in relation to this object. That’s how I use the word to guide the show, actually. CS: [looking at the map installation on the wall] This really interested me a lot, can you tell me about this specific piece of furniture?
NF: These are things that I grabbed off the internet mixed with snapshots I took. This one was, like, it was a futurist, actually it was contemporary they just labeled it as a futuristic, domestic computer environment.
CS: And this an Apple..
NF: Yeah, that’s an Apple, I was interested in it because it’s a strong Mac aesthetic.
CS: It also looks like a dentist’s chair…
NF: Yeah, it also has that, it’s this complete interface with the body…
CS: A pod…
CS: [pointing to another image] This is the console.
NF: This is the entertainment console, true, in the ’60s, the moment in the past where you accept it as a sculptural object in your environment, y’know, it’s kind of like the sputnik everybody used to have.
CS: Wait. People used to have a sputnik? NF: Yeah, people used to have sputnik-like sculptures in their environments, like in the ’50s, my grandparents did I think.
CS: The sputnik was a spaceship or something, what was the sputnik?
NF: It was a satellite, a completely beautiful polished orb with just antenna legs coming out of it.
CS: I totally remember sculptures and design.
NF: Yeah, because there was such a heightening of technology at this time, the late 1950’s, and 1960’s, because of space travel and stuff, people were really accepting of sculptures, quasi-sicence-art-objects into their space where the function in question could be opened up a little bit because there was such an elation over this strange object up in outer space, so it was almost religious, an object…
CS: connected to us all…
NF: So people wanted one in their house! That’s the context that this comes out of.
CS: Well they’re so different, that one is in relation to the body in a way that that one is not, the connection to the body here are the dials, that’s what was going on then, dials… (It’s rarely mentioned, but this 1964 Oldenberg, “Soft Switiches,” was an example of what Donald Judd referred to in his own writing as a “specific object.” People usually only think of Judd’s Minimalism.)
NF: This piece, the desk piece which is called “Information Platform” was picking up from my thoughts about furniture and interface, short-circuiting any possible function while at the same time presenting function. You put your keypad on this wooden keypad, so it’s already like a double obsolete thing, and this is the light source and it slides… I was thinking it’s like a typewriter- another obsolete object that became part of today’s computer.
CS: So you want these really to be in this weird ambivalent space, not like when Donald Judd started making furniture straightforwardly as furniture, alongside of his sculpture. But these are, as you were talking about it, also intended to be used as furniture but they’re not really that straightforward as furniture, so there’s this kind of weird space that wasn’t available to Donald Judd but that is available to you. NF: Yeah, I would be happy if someone were to use this as furniture for sure, all of this stuff, I could imagine it not being used but i’d much prefer, the best thing somebody could do is use this computer table. Whoever buys it is going to have the newest computer monitor for sure , but then it will be beside this old micro-film reader I found on the street, making the constant nagging comparison.
CS: Helluva name, “Eyecom.”
NF: Yeah, “Eyecom,” like iPhone or iMac. It’s function is light, and a double function is this drawer where you can keep your documents.
CS: The secret spot.
NF: There’s layers of obsolescence. I’d be interested in interviewing someone who has had this piece in their life for a few years and asking them, what’s your experience working on this station? I think this is a pretty good station to use. There is a strong invitation for people to use it and for people to bring it to their lives because this show is about consciousness in people’s lives so I think these objects, work better at home in use, than in a gallery. I’d like to see people live with this obscelete laptop thing here…to use it somehow…
CS: as light…
NF: As art, as light, that’s the zen part thing.
CS: Okay, that’s that’s well, here’s the thing, when Turrell and Flavin and all of those things started coming out there was really harsh criticism against all those light people and it was regarded as inviting this kind, well with Turrell this kind of piety – in ’68, in the ’70s people were very concerned about this use of light in sculpture because the dialogue of the time was about “the real”, the “specific object” and when you introduce light into it all of the sudden you get, y’know there’s that book Downcast Eyes by Martin Jay, a history of philosophy that is about privileging the eye, enlightenment, as a real sort of problem, a tradition, I’m glad that you’re mentioning it, it’s also a problem for zen discourse, ‘enlightenment,’in terms of relating with a public, when people talk of enlightenment it’s often regarded as this purity of achievement. So there’s something about light, you can talk about this in an interesting way, in a way that is importantly there in your work. NF: Of course I was thinking about that, yeah, sure, James Turrell, I was thinking of Flavin, so the question is about sublime light, it stands for enlightenment, also that type of sublime is transcendence of the material world, an optical transcendence of materiality, I’ve had the experience with James Turrell where I was caught in a space…
NF: Suspended, not sure what I was looking at.
CS: I get something different from Flavin, a colder technology.
NF: Flavin’s been kinda overrun by the last decades of the way lighting works now- the way we see it in malls sometimes looks like Flavin.
CS: They don’t even make those bulbs any more, it’s a real problem for anyone who owns one, they can’t turn it on anymore! Obsolete.
NF: I’m not transported by Flavin very much but I saw a Turrell that, I was suspended and it’s a strong feeling, I can see that it’s almost like a religious experience, a little cheesy…
CS: That was in this criticism that I remembered, and it was specifically in relation to, and this is important, the discourse it was competing with at the time was the concrete, a big word in the Minimalist crowd, the real was a big word, object, objecthood all those words were about being invested in the materiality of our everyday space, something that remained in an art context but was nonetheless an address to an actually lived daily experience. So to bring light, y’know, this is like a hauling it back, retrieving it from the piety let’s say of someone like James Turrell, only there’s still that facing thing that’s going on that can be really powerful. NF: In general these things don’t have one meaning, they’re sort of cross-referencing meanings [points to the hole behind the monitor and in the back where the light appears from]
CS: That’s a nice touch. It’s fake!
NF: I always work with demystification, In a way, in all my earlier work, all the drama, all the cinematic moments are demystified, because you can see, your watching the illusion at the same time as you’re watching the machines that create it, so it’s kind of like this Plato’s cave thing, so it’s important that there’s immediate demystification of what’s going on.
CS: But it’s not immediate, you have to be drawn.
NF: But you can figure it out. That’s important, but essentially you do get this kind of sublime light. In one sense it’s a little sublime as opposed to a big sublime, like a mini-sublime.
CS: It’s like an incidental sublime. And you lose it, too, you sort of be in it and then have it vanish.
NF: But the sublime is very important at the same time because that’s essentially what the thing is presenting to you is a sublime experience, that’s what they have to offer, and if you put the lights down in the gallery or room you’d be even more sucked into the light. So they’re sort of offering you this sublime experience that you can demystify on the next take. And its going right back to the artists of the ’60s and ’70s because I think that this is a strong tradition coming very directly from the work of Donald Judd and Flavin and James Turrell going into the Mac design. And the people who invented Mac knew very well about that type of art. What I think about art is that people think it’s a canon that stays in the art world but its really not, the strongest part of what was developed in the ’60s ended up having nothing to do with the art world, maybe the so-called art world went on a totally different track- almost more of an economic development thing- the art is the fairs and market today , not the discourse that the Turells and Judds had back then…
CS: As we were talking a word was niggling at the back of my head, we were talking earlier about Fried and Minimalism and all that and a word that was really important and that he didn’t find in those sculptures was absorption, and he found that in the history of painting, Diderot’s criticism and Chardin and painters like that, and the distinction, he was trying to make sense of this word theatricality by returning to painting and talking about absorption. Which is a really a good word…
NF: I like your theme of coming to different words, it’s great, so tell me about absorption.
CS: People like to take him down but I like him a lot, and I don’t want to turn him into some kind of “zen” guy because he isn’t, but he infamously ends his essay with the statement that “presentness is grace,”and theatricality is presence. Absorption, it turns out, is going to be presentness. And so he talks about paintings in which pictures are not…there’s a way of painting a mass of figures as part of a scene where they’re performing for you and they’re all very actively engaged with each other but the presentation is theatrical precisely because they’re not really acknowledging you at all but they’re very aware of you being there. Sometimes there were will one pair of eyes, y’know, a stand-in gaze. And you can think of it as some kinds of people, we were talking earlier about how you didn’t want this to be overdetermined by ethical moral concerns. but this can be a description of people as well, that theatricality extorts complicity from people. Fried doesn’t describe it this way, but I do because this is how people can be. You can be at a party, I’ve been this person at times, we all have…someone will walk into a room and they’re kind of ignoring everybody but in a very theatrical way they’re kind of drawing attention to themselves, it’s very intentional but in order to pull it off they’re refusing the acknowledgment of others. NF: Performing rather than interacting.
CS: So that word theatricality, I’m not so interested in that but absorption, like a face-to-face meeting, it’s not theatrical, its that…
NF: Absorption is a little Martin Buberesque, the I and Thou thing.
CS: Hm hm, right. But Fried was talking about paintings, such as with Courbet, where not only the artist in front of the canvas, his experience in the working of the material, but that artists experience in front of that object was really not different than the beholder’s experience in front of the object in terms of materiality and absorption. The success of a good painting is that it hauls you into that space so there’s no distinction between the artist and the viewer.
NF: Great, that’s awesome, I don’t really have anything to add to that. Absolutely.
CS: It’s a way of getting at the problem of enlightenment I think and your issue of light, its something like absorption.
NF: What’s strong to me is the materiality part of it. Courbet goes through a filter of working and struggling with this viscous material to bring to your eyes the image, right, and that is the same with Morandi. The struggle and honesty with that material are specific to art.
NF: Yeah, thank you. The work with that material in a way diminishes the facility by which you can create an illusion but at the same time it presents the same relationship with the artist and then it goes back with the viewer ’cause the artist takes time, and if you are really looking at that kind of picture you have to invest time. So there’s the two things going on: the materiality which stops you and then there’s another layer that creates the conditions for absorption. Consciously that’s what’s going on here. Y’know what, a lot of its about time. When you spend time working on a surface and letting things build up…It’s great that you bring up this word absorption and I think it’s also related to the word I was using, commitment, the way that I meant to use it, because it’s about slowing down. Really what’s asked for is to cut through a certain media attention span cycle, that’s not fast forward, because this is how people consume not only products but also art. What’s needed, especially when you’re working with contemporary objects or products is to slow that superspeed process down a little bit. So the way I thought to do that was to personally slow down the process in the studio.
CS: So with these pieces something that is definitely going on that is not going on with these others are kind of big things, there’s the facingness thing, the enlightenment thing, the absorption thing, but there’ also painting here, yes, there’s sort of Rachel Harrison painting over there, but this is like painting. And it’s very deliberately there, as painting.
NF: Yeah, well, when you think about these as Steinbach objects, in that tradition, which they are, I wanted to continue this project, relate to it, not only thinking about the monitor but thinking about Steinbach and what it means to put consumer objects on a shelf in the Modernist tradition.
CS: And to never change,with Steinbach, it’s to never change, he’s not in the studio, he’s sort of gone into production arrest, which is kind of curious about him.
NF: Frozen in time.
CS: Yeah, there was an exhibition at Sonnabend not too long ago, and I think that the way it works for him is that you purchase the shelf, and then added to the value of the shelf are the receipts literally form Walmart
NF: Is he buying from Walmart now?
CS: Oh, I don’t know, I’m sure that he buys from a variety of places, but he’s got an interest in the commodity and its value that’s different than yours, you’re much more, I guess I want to say that you are much more phenomenological in your orientation than he is.
NF: Yeah. But the thing is that he’s talking about objects of desire and repositioning them formally in an art tradition.
CS: Butbutbut..hmm..he’s in a place where you’re not really seeing them that differently, I mean you can take that box of Fruit loops, I mean I’m sure if you owned one of those you’d put on those Hulk boxing gloves that make a noise, or..I think the piece that does it for me the most are those black chewy dog toys, you fill them with dog food and if you were to take those of the shelf they’d be flying around the house! So there’s something about the mobility of those objects from the store to the shelf, by the force of desire being driven into the space of the room, y’know, flying off the shelves at either end. And your work has a quality of absorption or “holding power,” if you will.
NF: The work relating to the Steinbach, well the painting on the bottom is there in a very conscious way, because the shelf thing he does is kind of flat glossy paint, a perfectly rendered shelf, and then I realized these Steinbach shelves have this big surface on the bottom side that could be used. So it could be a painting.
CS: Actually he’s using laminates, they’re’ sheet goods. They are totally pristine.
NF: he doesn’t even make them himself, so a part of this is about efficiency, contrasting with the world of production and wasted space. For one thing, crafting the shelf, whittling it down and exposing the materiality, and taking advantage of what art can be done in the space.
CS: He used to do this kind of vintage shopping, he’d buy a funky lamp with deer hooves as the base and put next to it a pair of Nike sneakers. I don’t think he does that so much anymore, so you’ve got an obsolescence thing going on here, this monitor with the blackout – there’s something that’s explicitly about planned obsolescence here that doesn’t exist in Steinbach’s work.
NF: Even without the obsolescence physically being the work, with these and almost everything else in the show there is that knocking on the door of the death of these products, kind of turning the corner around materialist desire and planned obsolescence. You’re kind of seeing around the thing because the object is presenting a kind of phenomenological version of itself, without its normal function really there. Probably why Steinbach came upon his project in the ’80s is because that was a very materialistic moment in history. I like his work. I thought it was weird, I came upon it for the first time in an old Art in America or something, when I was at school at RISD. You could see he was the big deal in 1985, and it’s so strange to come to these previous art histories . Jeff Koons sure got a little more into the art history books than Steinbach did, but his basketball and vacuum cleaner work is very parallel. So it’s very much reacting to this Reagan era consumerism. Now, in the same way, we’ve come to the end of a very similar boom except that it’s a tech-boom, I mean, now, everyone needs an iPhone, information is being sold to us as lifestyle, connections, immaterial things, and it’s sublime. CS: An important word that came up for me again as you were talking is this word complicity. Haim Steinbach is regarded as a complicit artist.
NF: Understandably so.
CS: Hal Foster has the most scathing criticism against commodity sculpture and what he refers to as “cynical realism.” Complicity is in his text and it’s in a lot of other writers at the same time, it suddenly became a term that re-appeared, and now Johanna Drucker has written a whole book about complicity as what defines the art of our time. I don’t see what you are doing as involving or critiquing at any level this notion of complicity, which is I think another difference between what you are doing and what Steinbach is doing. It has a lot to do with planned obsolescence, that things fall away.
NF: I just have a problem with that word, complicity, because it sounds pretty moralistic.
CS: But it’s been written about as a positive term, that’s what Drucker has done is to take what Foster and all these other people were projecting as harsh negative criticism, and with Foster there is usually a bit of a seething Marxist tone. I do think you can charge Steinbach with a level of complicity and that is a zen thing too, I mean how do you deal with judgment and criticism? I do judge.
NF: Of course, we all do.
CS: So I don’t want to run away from the word complicity as a negative word, but to investigate what can be earned from it.
NF: In that sense, I ‘m thankful to Haim Steinbach because artists have to work with all this stuff they didn’t have to before, to work with that material and be involved with it. He set up this thing in his moment that artists like me can react to. I suppose his was a complicit gesture. But I don’t feel like what I’m doing is judging his work, just working off it.
CS: You’re not critiquing Haim Steinbach by doing this.
NF: I’m not doing that at all. Steinbach’s is a different project that is at this point I think quite historical actually. It really does belong to a specific time period, even though it’s sort of frozen and as you say, he is still making these shelves. But when I see his work I think of Reagan.
CS: Right. You’re talking about the President.
NF: The President is a deep metaphor right now, it’s funny…Reagan delivered some unexpected and amazing speeches by the way. But it’s also that Steinbach represents a previous moment in the art bubble so thats another aspect of the history-economics.
CS: That moment when people were writing about Steinbach, and there were people who were in the media also, Foster was feeding from others who were also critical of Julian Schnabel, those two were propped up as the artists created by a collector-driven market. So it’s a perfect site to reach for from this moment in time. But I have to confide in you, and I think we’re already in a place where we can do something with this, I really cannot stand the rampant art historical quotations that are passed off in contemporary art as insider jokes or a flat delivery of a narrative only for the sake of hooking into that narrative.
NF: Right, it’s very common, it has to do with artists going to school.
CS: Well artists were going to school when the Minimalists started and they weren’t doing that exactly, it’s not that it’s something else…
NF: Well, it’s like everything on Broadway is a re-run now, right? It’s how people feel, it’s a market trend.
CS: It’s also because everybody else is going to school too and they are required to take those art history classes…
NF: Quotations are a value, they already have a brand name, people know about them and people feel good about knowing about that.
CS: Right, so what I’m doing here is looking at these and thinking about this deliberate and specific reach to Haim Steinbach, and that there’s something inside of these thoughts about planned obsolescence that has, not a critque, but a sort of moving inside of the operations of history, and not merely quoting them for the sake of quoting them.
NF: It’s the first show I’ve done where I haven’t been processing information in this way. Before, I was not referring to art history but to other histories. CS: You’ve made ghosts of the information technology you were addicted to!
NF: I realize I’ve reached a certain point of making art where the fact that people before (like Steinbach) have done other projects that meant different things at different times-becomes to me so important, art history became important to me in a personal way. I wouldn’t have done that before because you have to arrive at this moment organically. I know exactly what you’re saying about a vogue to quote stuff but it’s kind of beside the point in a way because what is needed is perspective to make it a new thing. When you know about an artist long enough, for years say, you can start to comprehend the power in their project and you can really interact with it and have a shadow double of what you are doing so it becomes rich territory.
CS: Without recovering or salvation.
NF: I think it’s so important, I feel so good about evoking the Reagan-era ’80s, with this show in this time now, I feel very good about it and I think it’s a great thing to arise. People have different relationships to it based on according to who’s looking at it of course, right?
CS: But we can say something is over, I take comfort in that and it’s a lot of false comfort, I know, but..
NF: My work is about history, there’s a consciousness of time in history, that’s how I’m comfortable making quotations and interacting with art history. It’s about a history effect.
Image credits: (All works by Noah Fischer unless otherwise mentioned, courtesy of Claire Oliver and Noah Fischer) Green Essentials, mixed media, 29×16 1/2×29″;Giorgio Morandi, grabbed from Metropolitan Museum of Art: iRaq posters by Forkscrew, photo courtesy of Class Warrior; Beige Study Number 3, mixed media sculpture, 32 1/2x16x15 1/2″: Chair Study Number 1, mixed media sculpture,14 1/2 by 17 1/2 x35″; Grandfather Clock, mixed media sculpture, 144x12x89″; Perfect Lantern, mixed media sculpture, 18x 33 1/2 x 15:; Chair Study Number 1, detail; Surveillance object; Treasure Map, 56x86x0″; Sputnik lamp; Claes Oldenberg, Softlight Switches, 41 1/8x 11″, City Review; Information platform, mixed media sculpture, 60x26x45; James Turrell, Meeting, 1986, Photo by Michael Moran,Courtesy P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center; Beige Study Number 3, detail; Franz Xaver Winterhalter (German, 1805–1873), Florinda, 1853,Oil on canvas, 70 1/4 x 96 3/4 in. (178.4 x 245.7 cm), Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of William H. Webb, 1899; Family Portrait, Mixed media, 32 1/2×53 1/2x 15 1/4″; Haim Steinbach, Orient Point, plastic laminated wood shelf; rubber dog chew; electronic “Hulk” hands; plastic pumpkin lamp, 34 1/2 x 71 x 19″ (87 x 180.3 x 48.3 cm) from http://www.haimsteinbach.net/; New Codes, mixed media, 21x9x13″ detail; Family Poretrait, detail; Obama logo, Sol Sender; TV Kennedy, mixed media sculpture.
Conversation/Chat on Technological Trash and Related Ideas between Noah
Fischer and Gene McHugh.
11:31 AM Gene: so -how did you get interested in thinking about technology and junk? your new pieces seem to be a sort of post-apocalyptic depiction of high tech gone bad.
11:32 AM Noah: yes, I saw the two extremes of the tech/design process: the i-phone of desire on one hand (and all the advertising that goes with it) and the 7 year-old beige monitors in trash piles on the other, on their way to China to be melted down in toxic villages on the other: really the utopian and dystopian together.
Gene: have you researched the “life” of the computer much…i think the birth of the silicon in california being sent to china to be manufactured, returned to california to die and then sent back to china is sort of beautiful and tragic
utopian and dystopian.
11:34 AM Noah: yeah that is compelling and as we begin to understand this thing called Globalism more, it is sort of a touching story that emerges
I mean, when I saw images of “gleaning” the parts from old monitors in China, that was unexpected because it’s so lo-tech, almost pastoral-
So with photographs by Andreas Gursky or especially Edward Burtynsky you have the BIG IMAGE of this new landscape, that’s the form they choose.
I am trying to “muddy” the form more, to problematize and create a self conscious language to talk about the utopian/dystopian mix.
11:36 AM Gene: can you talk a bit more about the idea of language?
Noah: in what aspect of the work?
11:38 AM Gene: for instance the iphones you’re fabricating take the basic iphone design, but you create a sort of semiotics out of the new shapes you create. Sort of materializing the language that is implicit but difficult to decipher in the original devices.
11:41 AM Noah: that’s right…language is important in all of my work- I’ve often worked with it literally as in the speech analysis in Rhetoric Machine.
Gene: rhetoric – the rhetoric surrounding environmentalism is also something we’ve been discussing it gets lost in an ecology of other rhetorics
11:43 AM Noah: right- that’s the case in Pop Ark. and in that case I was looking more broadly at rhetoric, not just from the top down
11:46 AM Gene: it shows that information or rhetorical ecologies can also become “polluted” or so overwhelmed with noise, that it becomes difficult to know what is useful information from what is garbage
Noah: absolutely, so there is language trash….
11:48 AM Gene: yeah and with the web, the amount of language trash we deal with has rapidly expanded
Noah: I think that at the moment, the culture is still figuring out how to define let alone deal with Spam-as it overwhelms us. The new trash that always accompanies industrial shifts is never fully recognized.
But to get back to language, with the new work about monitors I am thinking about a grey area between language and design. You can certainly say that Modernist/Minimalist design it is broadly desired…But maybe just people versed in the basics of design, who studied it in art school for example, feel comfortable with it as a language the way that most people exist within written language.
Gene: so the idea is to create disinformation surrounding the semiotics of design i think your iphone pieces go a long way to doing that.
11:51 AM Noah: I think you said it very well – sort of short circuiting the rhetoric
implicit in the design with another another kind of language I mean, the point is to get some perspective on all of this- the very fast moving
contemporary process, right?
11:54 AM Gene: yeah, i think the role of the artist becomes important
there is official rhetoric and then the artist has to come along and shake things up try to puncture a hole in the mass of rhetorical mess that we’ve dug ourselves into the nightly news isn’t up to the task
11:58 AM Noah: absolutely not!
12:00 PM Noah: the nightly news is an addiction mechanism on which I am
Gene: hey a bit off topic, but did you see the photograph of sarah palin in an american flag bikini holding a gun poolside?
Noah: yeah you know its photoshopped
12:01 PM Gene: oh fuck
i was hoping not
Noah: no, you can see the original image of a much younger woman.
Palin probably looks better in real life
Gene: yeah she’s kind of hot, right?
12:02 PM Noah: I know
Gene: the sexy librarian thing
Noah: it was a master move in so many ways
12:04 PM Gene: there’s nothing more american than aerial wolf hunting
Noah: nope- that is like mythologically American
Gene: the first reality television candidate
12:05 PM Gene: it’s funny how we’re trying to resist this sarah palin charade and talk about rhetoric but here we are knee deep in it and hungry for more
i guess the point is to maintain some level of perspective, but not be “above” it
Noah: Yeah I can’t resist… Well I make it a point not to have internet in my studio, I go there and try to focus
Gene: that’s smart i’m totally hooked
Noah: I hear you brother staring into the monitor a lot?
Gene: yep – exactly it’s not an object, it’s a warm, mothering light beckoning forth
12:07 PM Noah: exactly, if we deconstruct it, we have a nice lantern to gaze into: the mothering light as you say…
Gene: i’ve always liked this idea of ancient societies staring into the flickering campfire and telling stories and how this has simply mutated into televisions and now iphones and whatnot sophisticated campfires
12:09 PM Noah: I think about that too- funny actually how campfires are so
Gene: they really are i went camping a couple of weeks ago, couldn’t take my eyes off the fire
Noah: something about the idea of infinity- no flame ever the same
there is some promise of infinite yet looping entertainment-as in the daily news for example
Gene: yeah, infinite jest that’s a good book
12:11 PM Noah: I started it couldn’t focus…
Gene: i have a hard time with novels these days, non-fiction’s easier
Noah: that’s interesting- nonfiction is feeding our information hungry brains
like filling up at the gas station for the info economy
Gene: ha Yeah – information really is a drug
12:13 PM Gene: i think the early cyberpunk stuff had it right – we’re a bunch of
degenerate junkies basically
Noah: for sure like in that Woody Allen movie where he imagines people of the future interacting with that drug-orb
Gene: oh sleeper
Gene: that shit is hilarious
12:15 PM Noah: yeah, starting at the monitor could look like that to people of the future or past… actually, starting at the monitor laughing, smiling, frowning
Gene: i just need a little line of drool coming down my chin
Noah: go for it
Gene: yeah maybe i will
Gene: meh, too self-conscious now maybe later today
Noah Fischer is a Brooklyn based artist represented by Claire Oliver Gallery.
Gene McHugh is finishing his Masters degree at the center for Curatorial Studies at Bard
Between 10 and 19 March, the Kunstenfestivaldesarts held a discussion with Noah Fischer via e-mail. The following text is an excerpt from that e-mail exchange. Both Rhetoric Machine and Pop Art are discussed in it.
In the first few days the e-mails centred on the types of rhetoric Fischer used and arranged in Rhetoric Machine and Pop Ark. The following excerpt opens with Noah’s reflections on the question as to whether there can be talk of rhetoric in art, and if that is the case, what type of rhetoric. The next question touches on the issue as to in how far the manner in which one talks about freedom, for instance, can in itself be free. Fischer then goes further into the meaning of electricity in his work, before finally reflecting on the performative character of the machines he builds.
On Mar 15 2008, at 07:41, Noah Fischer wrote :
Yes, freedom is a good theme and I hope that the Ark will take us there, although I can’t promise a smooth ride….
I agree with you on the freedom paradox in political rhetoric. Of course, here in the US freedom is our favorite word and it has been totally twisted around. In the research for Rhetoric Machine I listened to many, many presidential speeches and found a hard-wired pattern where a picture is painted of a road to freedom and to the utopian destiny of Americans (and people in general). Unfortunately, that road always had an obstacle on it – someone standing in the way of freedom. One last war and everyone will finally be free…
I know working with this content sounds hard and heavy. It’s not in the same spirit as the live chats or interviews in Little Red for example which as you say point a way toward a new use language-maybe a new rhetoric- that is not as weighed down by political history-that feels fresh. But given what it has felt like to see our government and legacy of the United States and global situation in general implode in the last 8 years – a truly strange nightmare-like experience – a dark tunnel actually – I felt that this work needed to be done. Sometimes you just have to head right into the shit. That’s why I love reading Kafka – some sort of hall of mirror mausoleum for human stupidity. These things have to be built and that is Rhetoric Machine. But then again Rhetoric Machine was in the end a (troubled) love story and I think if you can see that you really get the piece.
Pop Ark is not really in the same direction. There is a strong link between the two with mass culture and persuasive language but as I said in a previous email, after Rhetoric Machine I wanted to get away from a pure critique of “the man” or the big institutional symbols. Al Gore as you say is another well practiced head mover, but he works kind of like a foil in this piece against a new freer feeling, rambling, mimicking, media savvy yet highly personal rhetoric. I was inspired by kids who grew up with the internet as a fact of life and on their video blogs where they get to speak, edit, add sound, and network with their viewers, seem to have found a freedom (that word again) in the eye of the storm of commercial, superficial media.
One thing about my background is that I grew up in California on a Buddhist monastery. It was modeled on a traditional Japanese one, and very beautiful and peaceful near the Pacific Ocean. People were meditating and healing themselves, very nice people but there was one problem maybe. Anything outside of the monastery was referred to as “the real world.”
So at the bottom of my practice is dealing with the shit of this real world – actually as a celebration/duty of living in it. When I say “dealing” I mean making art about it: remixing a very visible electricity which is the basic but invisible thing in society with elements of painting (signifiers of art) sound, narrative structures, etc. to craft an experience that is completely of the reality (shit) world but reorganizes it into art somehow. It is very hard work, which means I have to be in my studio a lot – not hitch hiking on a Western highway – but I find a simple joy in things and time and in the state of the world as it is – in doing this, and I can share it.
Rhetoric Machine was really that – a Rhetoric Machine and you could say that this machine was showing something it was kind of like a multi media essay. WithPop Ark, I cannot say what I am showing pointing out – it’s more simple than that – it’s a big vessel, an Ark. The exciting thing about the Ark is that it’s on a voyage.
On Sat, Mar 15, 2008 at 7:59 PM, Lars Kwakkenbos wrote:
Thanks a lot for your answer.
Can you tell me more about that electricity you’re talking about, and link it to the way you use it in your work, if possible? You talk about invisible electricity in society, while your work seems to be characterised by a same sort of basic thing called electricity, that might link everything together. How does this work inRhetoric Machine, and how does it work in Pop Ark? How does electricity help to reorganize reality (by making art with it)?
On Mon, Mar 17 2008, at 07:23 Noah Fischer wrote
Here are some thoughts on electricity in my work.
One of the privileges of making art I think is to highlight ordinary things. This happens without doing anything – when we bring them into an art context, which can be a place of heightened sensory/ intellectual/historical awareness and debate. But I prefer to take a more active stance.
I would very much like to highlight electricity. It’s light, warmth, power, and politics in a pure form. It’s the energy that we live off. Yet for generations people have been taught to be scared of it, leave it to specialists, or just find it boring even though it’s consumed at increasing levels. Like a traffic signal, or the glowing screen of the computer that you have to sit in front of all day, electricity exerts a certain amount of control over our lives but we can no longer really see it.
I make work about power so I use power. Really, I have no choice. Even if I were painting with oil on canvas, or making ephemeral sand sculptures, a power grid looms somewhere in the background. That’s Western society. I choose to use this power in my work actively and, as we were saying before, to develop my thinking inside of this electrical work toward creating new forms. What about these forms? Well, electricity has rules that determine them. You touch certain wires and you will get shocked – a powerful sensation that I have experienced many times. Electricity tends to be either totally on or totally off – it’s not wishy-washy. It’s reality! Then when I started to work more with lights and motors, I found a freedom in it – avoiding being a “good electrician” and taming this force into a grid, but instead keeping alive an aspect of the raw power that initially fascinated me.
My work is lo-tech but more and more it’s addressing the computer. The computer is either an electric brain or mirror. Laptops (which are featured in Pop Ark) and ipods and iphones and the like are getting smaller and smaller and we are encouraged to think less and less about electric power and more about experience, networks, emotions, connectivity, options. But don’t be fooled – there is always something raw and dangerous and beautiful in electricity that maybe mirrors the same in the human mind. Behind the laptop there is a primitive thing and I would like to reveal this in my art.
In Pop Ark I have built switch boxes that look like laptops where all the power for the installation is routed. There will be a tall power pole with power lines up in the space. Controlling the installation – as with Rhetoric Machine – is a large motorized timing drum covered with electrical wires called the “Gore-Bot” which works like a music box. I could use a small computer chip to do the exact same thing, but I want to bring the electricity out of the closet. This machine may seem antiquated, but in New York there is a metal box on every traffic light that is basically the same thing.
On Mon, Mar 17 2008 at 6:31 PM, Lars Kwakkenbos wrote:
What fascinates me in your answer is firstly: your awareness of the physical presence of electricity – it can be warm and it provides power, but it can also be harmful – and therefore its relation to our senses and our human body. Can you further explain that?
Second thing that fascinates me: the rawness, danger and beauty that is to be found in electricity might mirror rawness, danger and beauty in the human mind. Do you turn your machines into metaphors for ways of thinking or feeling?
On Mar 18 2008 at 08:54 Noah Fischer wrote :
Electricity is a physical experience and like I said, it becomes clear when you get a strong shock. I don’t see them as bad things – it’s a very foreign but interesting moment to interact with pure energy. In New York we have Times Square, which is as you know an area of highly concentrated electric lights and communications. When I get near it I have a strong reaction to the electric fields I usually start humming pop songs to myself – silence isn’t possible there or maybe I have to start humming to reach silence – the mind making up for a negative charge.
To your second question – I was making the link between the brain and the computer and showing that there was actually a rawness to both although they seem like well organized working systems. It’s a question of seeing the forest for the trees I guess. The way that we use electricity in human social life from big coal or water or nuclear generators through transformers and stepped down to street voltages, to the 110 or 220 in our apartments, finally into our laptops in low voltages where information floats around – is very much like a human anatomical system: the nervous system or blood circulation. We seem to have created a massive hungry electric monster but mostly we just see the small side – the screensaver or something. I like to focus on the big picture, which is dangerous (not ipod-like). Also, this is what the Global Warming conversation is about or should be about – learning to step back. But it’s not just an intellectual exercise it has to be hands on, so I advocate taking apart electric appliances to see how they work. You might even get shocked.
Perceiving the rawness, danger, and beauty in humans works roughly the same way. You can read the newspaper talk in depth with smart friends, drink tea and eat a nice meal and think everything’s alright and civilization is ultimately winning out. But the answer is not really so clear. There is ongoing violence and injustice in the world that just defies logic. We’re lucky not to be a part of it for the time being. So you have to step back on that too – there is more work to be done with understanding the human experience on this level.
Electricity seems to be closely linked to humankind because we have learned to harness it. And human civilization just exploded after that.
Catherine Spaeth: I am interested in both of your practices in the context of Third Mind. There is Ann Hamilton’s commissioned piece, but the show really stops at 1989. So I’m interested in how the practices and ideas that are coursing through this exhibition relate to your work, as Buddhist artists who are practicing now. What I notice right away in both of your practices is an interest in meaning that I don’t think the artists in Third Mind engage with in quite the same way.
Catherine Spaeth: I am interested in both of your practices in the context of Third Mind. There is Ann Hamilton’s commissioned piece, but the show really stops at 1989. So I’m interested in how the practices and ideas that are coursing through this exhibition relate to your work, as Buddhist artists who are practicing now. What I notice right away in both of your practices is an interest in meaning that I don’t think the artists in Third Mind engage with in quite the same way.
Sanford Biggers: I think our interest in meaning may be a natural progression from some of the early aesthetic nods and philosophical interpretations of Eastern art by the generations included in the Third Mind.
CS: And you have had access to those traditions in quite a different way than past generations were able.
SB: Yes, as you know I lived in Japan for a few years in the early 90’s and went back for a residency in 2004 where I did a project with a Soto Zen temple using singing bowls, entitled Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu (In Fond Memory of Hip-Hop), 2004. A part of the project was to make Shinto singing bowls from melted down Hip-Hop jewelry that I found either here or in Tokyo, where there are several of Hip-Hop jewelry stores. I worked with several traditional artisans to melt all of the jewelry down into an alloy to make the bowls. The final part of the project was to actually perform the bells in the temple. We used some of the temple’s singing bowls along with mine in the final bell chorus. I drew up a diagram for the 16 participants to follow, however, it was largely improvisational. The head monk rang the final bell.
Sanford Biggers, Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva, 2000
One of the things I was interested in and why I did the piece with the breakdancers Mandala of The B-Bodhisattva, 2000, is that sometimes mandalas aren’t formally laid down, they are actually remembered as a dance.
I also have a suite of videos that I call “koan” because they are non-sequitur videos, if you were to try to read them in a narrative they wouldn’t match but somehow there’s an anecdote in each and putting them together creates yet another anecdote.
CS: Yes, at D’Amelio Terras I saw your video Cheshire which is the koan “Man Up a Tree.”
Xiangyan said: `It’s like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and at the bottom of the tree someone stands and asks him: `What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West ?’ `If the man in the tree does not answer, he fails in his responsibility to the person below; and if he does answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?’
When you think of Cheshire that way it has a darker inflection on it than the way I saw it described in reviews which was that these professionals take ownership of the tree by climbing it but, if you think of the koan tradition it’s a little closer to being lynched in that suit, man up a tree.
SB: Well, do you remember the sculptural component to Cheshire, the smile in the tree? This completes the double entendre.
Sanford Biggers, Cheshire, 2008. Aluminum, plexi-glass, LED’s, timer, 33x8x67″. Courtesy of the artist.
CS: But your work as compared to Noah’s is more interested in symbols and their interpretation, and I’m thinking of the recent Neo-Hoodoo show at PS1. Unlike in Third Mind there’s a very sort of ‘90s flavor and history in Neo-Hoodoo that’s involved with syncretism and approaching work in an almost shamanistic way. Which I see a little differently in your work, Noah, it’s working differently with interpretive symbols.
Noah Fischer: It’s true that in the sense that my work is “Buddhist”, or at least highly influenced by my Zen Buddhist background, that I haven’t used the symbols associated with Buddhism. I do think that the spirit behind Zen practice is perceived by some viewers. That spirit was present in my recent show “Monitor,”which contemplated the sublime illusion of the computer screen, and the form/emptiness of the hardware.
Noah Fischer, Monitor Family Portrait, mixed media, courtesy of the artist.
But back to your question, I have definitely worked symbols in my work. Particularly in the political work like Rhetoric Machine, an installation which basically remixed known political icons such as the American eagle, and the US president, but the game was to create a lot of space around them, and also make them personal. Because symbols become really heavy, and they they forge (political) identities and condition us. Maybe that is also a Buddhist idea. Sanford, maybe this is something that could be happening with your trees, the idea of a lynching tree can be so heavy for real, historical reason!! Maybe the problem is that there is not enough space around the symbol to really contemplate it personally. So how do you find the space for a greater complexity?
Noah Fischer, Rhetoric Machine, detail, photo by Beckett Logan, courtesy of the artist.
SB: I also am interested in the dual image of the Buddha finding enlightenment under the tree, and the Cheshire cat appearing and disappearing while uttering non sequitors and koans. I think symbols can visually create koans too. How do you unload or unpack a symbol from all the baggage it already has, and of course, that baggage is usually experientially relative to each viewer. When these symbols combine, their meanings become further complicated.
NF: It’s interesting to think about the western symbols that we are talking about like the American Eagle and the lynching tree in the context of Eastern thought tools: Zen koans and capping phrases. Because many of our Western language-based symbols- like “patriotism” or “racism” are based on logic, on not being the same as their opposites. But with the Eastern language tools such as koans you can possibly find a new way to move around these symbols and again loosen them up. I’m interested in that and began to do it with language in my recent installation Pop Ark which dealt with the linguistic randomness of the web. I agree with you that using a visual language art in the West is already concerned with conglomerating and confusing a clear reading of symbols. There seems to be truth in these contradictions.
James Mcneill Whistler, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, 1864, Oil on canvas, 93.3 × 61.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Photo: Graydon Wood
CS: These two paintings side by side are nice to see. Here you have Whistler depicting a contemplative mode, and then slipping into something else entirely.
NF: Well I have a comment about that piece.
You see this aristocratic woman enjoying the aesthetic space of the East in her parlor, it’s basically orientalist: a fantasy land. This reminds me of a big potential problem with work that has a “Zen” influence because zen is like a brand, it means relaxing time: you’re not at the office working, you’re having your green tea and your spa or whatever. Number one it’s definitely a type of orientalism: the east in the mind of the west – with an added class thing going on. This is not a place to deal with the pain or reality or worldness or trash of the world. But I think that Buddhism, well, at least meditation, really helps with dealing with these things in life and in the work, so the tag Zen can be misleading…
CS: Orientalism in late nineteenth century painting was tied to the decorative arts and to the feminized domestic interior as a place of restive contemplation far removed from the labor unrest and “urban masses” that surrounded its patrons. It was a way of domesticating the foreign.
So it is interesting to consider the role of the contemplative mode in these works. So much is laboring towards that. One of the things that is depicted in these 19th century pieces is sound, the importance of sound, even Paul Kos’s piece out there is about the importance of sound, so sound has become in a way what emphasizes the contemplative mode that you see here. Dewing is about sound, that woman is listening , he will also title his paintings Song of a Lark. There’s another painting over here that’s quite beautiful, Arthur Dove’s Foghorns, but also this by Augustus Vincent Tack, the Voice of Many Waters, it’s an abstraction. So the desire to appeal to sound as a vehicle of contemplation moves from someone like Dewing in the decorative tradition to early American Modernism.
Arthur Dove, Foghorns, oil on canvas, 54.6×72.4 cm., Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, anonymous gift, c. The estate of Arthur G. Dove.
NF: The work in this show is very soft, it seems to be a theme, this softness. I see many washes, not so many hard edges or aggressive moves. Mark Tobey’s work for example was called “miniscule” by Greenberg and you can see how it was so. The problem I find with this softness is that it becomes precious. So I am happy that there was a Van Gogh and Pollock to bring some fieryness to the canvas. To help us get over the “pictureness” of pictures.
CS: There was a very broad characterization of Abstract Expressionism with Asian calligraphy, even though artists wanted to distance themselves from such ideas, but I think that there are many artists today who medititate and wouldn’t want to put their work out in front as in any way inspired by zen practice, that’s kind of a sticky place, still.
SB: Why do you think that is?
CS: Well, I think a lot of it is secular modernism, there is a lot of suspicion of so-called spirituality in art, and you can talk about that from the beginning of time, but what does interest me about Zen specifically is that out of all the spiritual practices I know of, many people who are strong practitioners will back away from defending it as a religion. There’s a kind of objectivity about it, and whether that is something that has been earned or whether that is an illusion is a question – if you’re going to be a secular purist you don’t want to go near that question.
Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956, oil and paper collage on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, Gift of Friends of the Whitney Museum, c. 2009 The Estate of Franz Kline/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
SB: I’ve always found it amazing and very self-conscious that so many artists want to deny some kind of link towards things beyond the heady western academic sense of mark/art-making.
NF: Also, if Kline is denying a connection to calligraphy maybe he’s saying “I invented it myself”, which nowadays we don’t really believe anyone ever did. So then I would pose the question: where does he think these black brushstrokes come from? Well, probably it came right from Japanese brushwork whether or not he admits it, but maybe there’s a little Russian Constructivism in there and German Expressionism and some other things (which were probably also influenced by Japan and China). But what he says about the work is maybe just the game he’s playing.
SB: The other side of it is to say that it is an investigation of mark-making, which does encompass calligraphy, Constructivism – it covers a single lightening bolt in the horizon, it’s all mark-making, it can be all-encompassing or denial.
NF: That’s fair. Once it’s in the public realm if too many of those cards are given away people will over-identify with some of those things, so maybe in a way it’s better to leave that to people’s own interpretation.
SB: Fair as well.
CS: This is rare to see. Pollock has a thing about #One over and over and over again, as though summing up the whole history of painting as #One. To see an actual series, a row of such calligraphy, by Pollock is very nice. it also looks as though, unlike the consistently additive throwing of paint so associated with action there’s been some kind of lifting away. And here’s an instance where you have Philip Guston who abandoned abstraction completely for his Nixon series, all the shoes, and the lightbulbs, and the kkk hood in a very personal symbolism. You know in choosing these early abstractions by Guston, instead of his figurative painting, which completely eclipsed his earlier abstraction, the curators are really saying that abstraction is where the Zen is.
NF: Yeah, I don’t know about that…that’s problematic. It’s that brand of Zen as a gestural brushstroke. I think Zen can be anywhere- anything, right here! You just have to find the emptiness in the form.
CS: All of this abstraction is at the center. But you know, this is an historical show and this is what happened.
NF: Do you paint?
SB: I have a painting background, I used to paint but I just got to a wall where I wasn’t really doing anything interesting, at least in my mind. As I became more interested in the issues behind painting and representation and wanted to go into something that I thought was more experiential. And sculpture, performance, installation etc; all that did a little bit more for me, the physiciality of it and the way it operates in space had more to do with the body for me, I felt more connected to it. I’ve always, however, maintained a 2-dimensional practice, but right now I’m more interested in drawing than painting, I’m interested in the mark again, but I think it has something to with the mark being less inhibited by history, painting’s got a lot of social, political and historical baggage, I don’t feel that so much with drawing. Sure, you can find baggage if you want, but that dialog is not so interesting to me these days.
I do not want to indict all painting, but it is the poster child for the western bourgeois approach to luxury arts. It is very much steeped in a dialogue of privilege and class, a dialog that has distanced the artworld from larger society. Some may argue that’s how it should be, but for me there’s a disconnect, an elitism that is inherent in the way it is traded, not just financially but culturally. Who has it, where is it, how do you see it, how much was it, how do you understand it? It privileges certain hierarchies that other artforms may not.
NF: Do you think that installation gets around that problem, the exclusivity problem? I’m thinking that non-painting forms of art can be seen as even more rarified because most people don’t even know what installations are.
SB: It’s true that exclusivity is unavoidable in our field to a degree, but I think some of the non-painting forms, because they are less familiar, can be more inviting to new interpretations and readings.
NF: I always get back to drawing. I believe that’s the root of this work, I almost find it hard to relate to artists who can’t or don’t draw…I don’t want to make a judgment about them , but my feeling is that art kind of starts there. Here’s a story… my first solo show was actually, at the San Francisco Zen Center which used to have a little gallery room, and they gave me a show before I left and came to the East Coast, and I was like 18 at the time, you know people in high school are always drawing random stuff in drawing class: rendering whatever. For the show which was called “Objects”, I drew all sorts of things in pen and ink on paper just things around the house, like a Buddha statue but also a trash bin and a stapler, and by drawing these things I began to feel fondly towards them, I realized drawing is just a type of consciousness-practice. When you look at something well enough to render it you are attending to that thing and essentially you’re opening your heart to that thing, your consciousness is channeled at that thing, there is no heirarchy at that point, you could be drawing Bill Gates or a banana or a can of soda or a wooden mouse trap. Anything. And it’s the same, it’s all just consciousness.
Noah Fischer, Laptop Drawing, Ink on Dura-Lar, 18×24″, courtesy of the artist.
SB: I feel that way about process. Labor intensive work takes me away from expectation. I have an idea what direction I may be going, but that is just the set up before I go into autopilot, all actions becoming somehow equal or non hierarchical. I’m thinking of the large sand pieces, or the glass etching I just did, with the slave vessels. That’s where the good stuff is! – when you’re working in an almost pre-conscious state.
Sanford Biggers, Lotus, 2007, hand-eched glass, steel, LED’s, 7′ diameter, courtesy of the artist.
NF: So for you it’s the labor and the repetition?
SB: At a certain point it’s not even about the object, it’s just about going in there, the feel and sound of the charcoal and the brush against the surface. For me its like the difference between religions and faith. Faith is the thing that all religions have, regardless of what form or name it goes under. I think that art praxis may be the same thing, ultimately, regardless of what you ascribe to it it’s more about the act of making it.
Sanford Biggers, Lotus, detail.
NF: Sometimes people use the word commitment with art and I know this has a philosophical history from Adorno which I may be passing over but for now I just mean commitment of the artist’s time, and a lifelong commitment to developing the work. Like Hsieh in the room with the time clock, what an amazing commitment! Commitment is a special thing because it requires a focus, as opposed to multi-tasking, or distraction.
Tehching Hsieh, One-Year Performance, 1980-1981, April 11, 1980-April 11, 1981, installation of documentary photographs and original performance relics, including poster, documents, 366 time cards, 366 24 hour images, 16mm. film, time clock. 16mm. movie camera, uniform, shoes and footprints. Collection of the artist, c, 1980-81 Tehching Hsieh, Photo, Michael Shen, c. 1981 TehChing Hsieh, New York.
SB: In that respect, the artwork is just the byproduct of commitment. Whether it be embodied in a painting, an object, or a repetitive action. Hsieh’s photo documentation is the byproduct of a commitment or praxis, much like a Pollock painting.
CS: Ann Hamilton is a good model for that here, she also wrote an essay for Buddha Mind and she was very clear that she’s not a practicing Buddhist, but she was included in this exhibition precisely because of this sense of commitment that interests her, that her studio practice is one of attending and being committed to that attending. So it’s interesting that what counts for you is something you’re calling commitment and that underneath that you can include artists such as Ann Hamilton – or let’s say anyone at all who expresses their work process as an intuitive not-knowing – in an exhibition like this.
Noah Fischer, Pop Ark, nd., detail, mixed media installation, courtesy of the artist.
NF: Well, what else is there beside commitment, I mean, genius? I just did this big crazy installation called Pop Ark , and something I keep thinking about…that the main point of it may have been just the doing of it- how crazy and improbable that was, but somebody did it, realized it, spent the time doing this thing.. .
Nobody else could really do it , someone felt the need to put it together. Most artists aren’t getting rich off of this, but the commitment gives something back to us in its own way I think, and this is similar to a Buddhist practice. But unlike Buddhist practice, the commitment that artists make is quite outward and public ultimately.
SB: I was speaking to a group of people the other day about the prayer rug I made at Triple Candie years ago . It took close to two hundred hours to put it down, and from the moment of completion it was in a constant state of devolution. Its visual, physical presence only highlighted its temporal vulnerability. That work was very much about commitment and relinquishment.
CS: One of the things that I’m hearing here is contentment with a thing done.
SB: Well, a thing gets done but then you’re on to the next thing, so it really doesn’t have an end. Each project is just the artifact of that commitment at that moment, but that same commitment will go into the next project.
NF: It’s not just about the painting it’s about your life and maybe in the end, the art “career” (for lack of a better word) is about making this commitment in your time, your era. The commitment is an exchange with people and places around you, as part of the cultural process or self-understanding of your era, therefore each artist is unique. So your work has to be different than Jackson Pollock’s, as he wasn’t around to make that commitment in the ‘90s.
SB: Practice. That’s the word.
NF: As an artist you are creating a life of commitment or maybe more accurately as Sanford says- practice, but there is an object-thing attached to it; actually a series of things. As a Zen practitioner you are also involved in a life about practice but it’s discouraged to make anything of it. Things tend to unleash desire.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Me: I have absolutely no idea what part of the world this view of the ocean came from, but it was the Google image link to the following:SuperHappyPuppy.
NF: And here’s a beautiful object, they just have to get a bigger wall for that.
CS: Did you see the show at Gagosian, Seven Days and Seven Nights? The installation was stunning, you walked to the other side of a long wall and into seven nights and it was so dark that without the help of a guard you had no idea where your feet ended and the floor began, it was disconcerting to be thrown into the ocean in that way.
NF: He also did the movie screens, so it’s not like he’s walking away from the human world into the natural sublime- he finds it everywhere.
SB: These are all taken from different places in the world, they’re different oceans.
CS: And it is as though your feet don’t know where they’re standing.
SB: It seems to me that to think of this work in terms of East and West kind of takes away from what the work can do on its own.
NF: I think that as much as Globalism makes the world more connected, people will always use the mental shorthand of “East and West” because we love to separate things out…but , there is no such thing as East and West really. Depends on perspective.
Laurie Anderson, In the House, In the fire, courtesy of Obieg.
NF: I remember Laurie Anderson came out to the monastery when I was a kid in the early 1980’s , she came out to have a conversation with the abbott of the monastery Reb Anderson. It was funny, though. Because it was definitely like an encounter with a star. In the context of the monastery she just looked like she had been partying too hard!
SB: I went to a retreat at Green Gulch.
NF: That’s where I grew up. You studied with Yvonne Rand, right?
SB: Yes, and that’s where I met Laurie Anderson, we were all speaking at Green Gulch. That’s where I got the idea for the bell choir, Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu. I learned that different metal alloys made distinct sounds, and that came out of the conversation with Laurie…The other participants who were there at some point realized that their shared interest in Buddhism was not really addressed nor accepted by the art industry, so they made their own community to address that. A book (Buddha Mind In Contemporary Art) came out of it but not an exhibition.
CS: At the Bronx Museum of Art you had a piece on Buddhism and commodification, what was that like?
SB: Well exactly, Noah, you were speaking earlier about Buddhism being a brand and that’s exactly where the idea for that show came from, the commodification of spirituality. The first piece I did was call The Mandala of Cooption where I cast clear resin Hotei forms with floating fat shoelaces, microphones and gold chains inside the Buddhas. There were four of them on the outside and one in the center that was robed with multicolored fat shoelaces. Basically, all of the floating objects were intended to represent Hip-Hop or urban culture but are fabricated in TaiWan, Hong Kong and Korea, so there’s no real sense of the authenticity between where these things were fabricated and what they reperesent. Even my original Hotei figure came from Mexico, was white and on the bottom and had horseshoes, pieces of rice and a four leaf clover, among other other symbols of good luck that have nothing to do with Buddhism. So I was really interested in how commerce ignores origins for the sake of uniformity and consumption. And the mash up of symbols, once again.
The project with the singing bowls, which were all made from melted down hip-hop jewelry, was more about distilling the commercial back down and into the singular form of the singing bowl. The bowls were used in a ceremony where each strike was like a prayer to a dead ancestor, but in this case it was Hip Hop. An homage to the past.
NF: Those two projects are so different. With the bell it’s an active thing if you are making a critique in the piece, it doesn’t happen in the mind so much as the body- hearing the sound of the bell and seeing what that does. In the other mode with the Hotei – you are using irony, symbolically highlighting contradictions.
SB: For me, the Hotei’s are at once both references and things. But the bells in performance or as sound generators are autonomous and not dependent on a referent. There were three or four years between those pieces and I had become less interested in illustrating a concept than making a sensorial experience from one.
CS: Picking up on the physicality of it I have this nagging little voice in my head that wants to say, well, there’s something trite about having a nostalgia for something more pure in the context of globalized capitalism. But when you are working with materials and symbols as physical things that involve people, whatever is trite about that vanishes, there is an alchemy there.
NF: Definitely. But people have to be willing to actually participate and do it. Experience is never trite if people are willing to do it.
Linda Mary Montano, Mitchell’s Death, 1979, black and white video with sound, 23 minutes, collection of the artist, c. 1979, Estate of Linda Montano.
CS: Do you think of what you do as salvific? Linda Montano approaches her work after years of practice as being therapeutic. Is that a way to talk about your work?
NF: Salvific, you mean like salvation?
CS: Salvation, other words people may use are redeeming, freedom is a big word…
NF: There’s a Zen tradition I like which focuses on everydayness- “nothing special” so I wouldn’t say salvific, I would just say practice, which encompasses the work of every artist. It’s just a matter of deepening the practice, becoming more aware. For me meditating and then going to my studio, gets me over the general fear of making decisions which can be very real and into the “why not” which is a good place to draw, sculpt, or exist from. So ultimately it’s about practice and commitment. It’s basically about doing but doing it fully aware.
SB: I think that awareness is key, that is something that meditation helps you do is to become more aware and to be able to tap into that awareness. And if you take that to the studio it’s a dance between making decisions and letting things come through you in a way where it doesn’t get caught up.
NF: Meditation is a way to work through all of these influences that are the landscape of our postpostpostmodern world and avoiding something trite and false , so it’s a careful and joyful tightrope walk.
Noah Fischer, Laptop Drawing, detail, ink on Duralar, 18×14″, courtesy of the artist.