A collaboration with Anthony Madrid published in the Paris Review. As part of the introduction, Madrid writes, “A few words about this presentation. The verbal part had a romantic beginning. I was obsessing over the rhythms of Korney Chukovsky’s poem ‘Telephone.’ Suddenly—very suddenly—occurred to me the first rhymes of what I thought might be an existential masterpiece: ‘Long time ago there was … a fuzz.'” View the whole article-poem-comic here.
The University of Minnesota Press announces a new series:
Art after Nature
Editors: Giovanni Aloi and Caroline Picard
Deep Time Chicago, a think group initiated after the Anthropocene Campus at the HKW (Berlin) recently published my essay about (among other things) the Pañcatantra and Georges Aperghis’ Darwinian opera, Sextuor – L’Origine des espèces in pamphlet form. Check it out here.
There is always a time before, the second / minute / hour / day / week / month / year before, a preceding generation, an older dynasty. Each human occasion is locked within a larger suite where instants fall on the page of our collective and singular imaginations like notes on a score. We acknowledge a darker, deeper time from which we must have emerged—the stuff of myth, divination, philosophy, and theory. Adam Smith drew hunters and shepherds from this amorphous past to produce a theory of capital and society in The Wealth of Nations. Archaeologists unearth artifacts in anthropological digs with parallel intensity, puzzling over the teeth of Neanderthals where isotopes in dental plaque reveal traces of raw aspirin and Penicillium. Or the virtual, scientific models—studies and projections that aim to uncover a point of origin (a bang for instance) after which life began and then diversified. Yet rather than lock this point of geologic departure in time, the world instead recedes into the past of human knowledge, growing exponentially older as scientific tools become more sophisticated.
In a sense, the Western World presumes to be (always) learning from Athens, espousing Ancient Greece as its point of origin and thereafter presuming a complex blend of familiarity, ownership, and admiration. The inscribed plaques on the gates at the foot of the Acropolis reinforce this lineage, reminding attending tourists that its ground marks the birthplace of Western Civilization. As a further reminder, the Acropolis is visible throughout the city: a distant hill with a brilliant stone beacon, signifying democracy, philosophy, freedom, and social cooperation; values endemic to Western identity, even if they remain elusive and difficult to implement. So, the West has always studied Athens, though the method of ‘learning’ proposed by documenta 14—the historically Kassel-based quinquennial exhibition, entitled Learning From Athens—is of a different kind; one that demands bifurcation to decenter and experience the world simultaneously from Greek and German coordinates: to look up at the Acropolis from elsewhere, while seeing elsewhere from the Acropolis.
To recognize the radical nature of this project, one need only observe the conditions by which the exhibition proposal for documenta 14 has been contextualized since it was accepted in 2012. The event comes at a time of economic strife in which many Greeks are convinced that “Germany is on a mission to throw the country out of the euro, however hard it tries to implement tough reforms demanded by creditors”1—reforms such as the sale of fourteen regional Greek airports to a private German company. “The deal is the first in a wave of privatizations the government had until recently opposed, but must make to qualify for bailout loans.”2 The dizzy reverberation between world events, economic policy, and culturaldiplomacy therefore comprise an odd maze, riddling the 2017 edition ofdocumenta with hierarchical challenges. These challenges so dominate the national and international dialogue as to make the artworks accountable to their setting. Within a climate, for example, where some 20,000 Athenians visit soup kitchens every day, what is the significance of Rasheed Araeen’s tented dining room in Athens’ Kotzia Square—a project intended to serve art enthusiasts and local people a free meal without requirements save that they converse?3
Is art useful in this context? Or does it merely exploit a landscape of inequality?
Select internal decisions of the curatorial team cause the perception of documenta’s position to appear additionally ambiguous. After announcing an intended partnership with the Athens Biennial, documenta 14 withdrew from the relationship for allegedly poaching the biennial staff;7 this was further complicated when new hires understood they would be paid at one rate (9 euros an hour) only to find their wages had been halved a few weeks later.8 These misunderstandings were additionally paired with the deliberate yet controversial debut of Athens’ Contemporary Art Museum (EMST) collection, in Kassel—not Greece, where the collection had previously remained in storage for years. As such, the “divided self” of documenta manifests in the dual location of Kassel and Athens, and is further mirrored in the organization’s two-facedness: desiring on the one hand to build a cultural bridge between Germany and Greece, while inadvertently reproducing some of the same power dynamics it aims to assuage. What is perhaps most curious about this arrangement is how documenta 14 begins to absorb some of Greece’s difficulties as its own, “Foremost among the catastrophes that we have encountered as we have worked on documenta 14 has been the economic violence enacted, as it seems, almost experimentally upon the population of Greece.”9
Whether in appreciation for the intellect, energy, and vision required to navigate these complicated waters, or simply to get on and explore the artworks documenta presents, let’s say the forty million dollar curatorial project glitters with strange ambivalence, boasting a radical internal optimism that is nevertheless intersected and refracted by a shifting quagmire of economic inequality, practical compromise, politics, hierarchical patterns, and mass migration: themes around which documenta’s core program is built. As such, and maybe because doubling one’s consciousness is exceptionally difficult, reflection upon the project is disorienting. It is almost impossible to determine inside from outside, to delineate documenta’s setting from documenta’s internal curatorial agenda, or even map the movement from one place to another. This disorientation might well encapsulate the crouched and restricted feeling of our times as vital entanglements bubble around every one of us, refusing despite best efforts to provide anyone a sense of agency.
As though to mirror this ambivalence, New Zealand-based artist Nathan Pohio presents two large scale black and white photographs in Athens and Kassel, Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! (2017) and Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! (2015). Reproducing two 1905 archival prints, each scene depicts the British Governor and his wife, Lord and Lady Plunket, meeting the Ngāi Tahu tribe from South New Zealand for the first time. The 2017 image hangs like a banner in Athens’ EMST’s lobby, as though welcoming visitors to the complexities of the 100-day museum. Men on horseback in ceremonial gear stand ad hoc around the western couple in their car. “In a Māori tradition, objects and bodies would be prepared to travel through a folding of space and time. Rather than considering movement as a passage from a point of departure to a point of arrival, the destination is brought to the traveler.”10 This reiteration of space, time, and travel could “enable discourses beyond what is known to all”11 while lending insight to Athens’ and Kassel’s simultaneity.
If space cannot be crossed, but instead is folded, an alternate world view breaches the surface of the Western mind: it is the world that comes and goes, not the individual.
Perhaps then, describing documenta 14 as a bifurcation is a misnomer. Perhaps instead we should think of the show as a type of fold in and of itself, which allows objects and visitors to pass between its two cities. The weekly airplane commissioned to connect Kassel and Athens for the duration of documenta would reinforce this idea, for it further merges these sites through the appearance of convenience. Additionally, each of the artists included in the two-site exhibition present work in both locations, such that the installations echo back and forth with an almost vertiginous, or amnesiac quality. Pohio presents a better-known photograph from the same series in Kassel on the Weinberg-Terrassen; this second image (2015) features the same figures, this time formally posed in a line to produce the shot. The photograph is the same as its Athenian cousin, except for the arrangement of figures. Had I not taken a photograph of the first image, I would not have remembered the difference, save for a queasy feeling of invalidated doubt. Here, in Kassel’s photograph, the figures have prepared themselves to meet the camera and, strangely enough, future viewers in different locations, like myself standing on a hill overlooking the Kassel’s Orangery.
“For Māori, the relationship between past, present, and future is neither teleological nor linear—the present is molded by the past being before us, and the future is a present continuous.”12 Both images capture an encounter between strangers and customs during a pivotal moment in respective histories. The 1905 photographs were taken during a land dispute between the British Government and the Ngāi Tūāhuriri, underscoring the question for its 2017 audience: can documenta 14 revise the power dynamics it uncovers?
Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore creates a similarly uncanny juxtaposition with Biinjiya’iing Onji (From inside) (2017) a hand-carved, life-sized marble tent. Installed first on Filopappou Hill, overlooking the Acropolis, the tent was later relocated to Kassel to stand alongside Pohio’s photograph on the Weinberg-Terrassen. The marble form is inscribed with folds of fabric. The ground of its marble bed is also made to look worn-in at the center, as though having born the weight of regular use. The tent’s door remains open, an invitation almost, and a small hole in the ceiling is at once reminiscent of smoke chimney and a view finder for stars. The work brings the Syrian refugee crisis to mind—a situation that once again amplifies the troubled relationship between Greece and the European Union. Since 2015, more than one million refugees from primarily Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have traveled to Greece in search of safety.13 From January and March of 2017, roughly one in four of 29,758 refugees were children.14 “Upwards of eight thousand asylum seekers remain in limbo on the Greek islands. So far, the European Union has only opened seven percent of its possible relocation sites, despite the goal of opening one-third of all relocation sites by the end of 2016.”15 Belmore’s tent is modeled after provisional architecture, a structure designed specifically for its portability. Fashioned from stone, the tent suggests transience as a permanent state, highlighting a Western contradiction: while international law entitles people the right to protection if they face persecution at home, national fears block many humanitarian efforts. “For other European allies, the continued flow of refugees also poses significant concerns, such as the growing fear of a terrorist attack, or riots between refugees, host communities, and the police.”16 Biinjiya’iing Onji (From inside) reminds viewers of the tepid and static welcome so many asylum seekers find in lieu of the Western promise they might otherwise seek.
“The world as we know it today remains a place (and time) of mostly fear, not hope,”17 Szymczyk states in the central documenta 14 catalogue text. Describing how these fears baffle progressive political parties, while simultaneously goading neoliberal policies and defensive national reflexes, this fright is a force that stiffens rather than accommodates our shifting global landscape. This sense is further articulated by artist Banu Cennetoğlu’s site-specific text work, Being Safe is Scary (2017), which appears on the frontispiece of the Fridericianum in Kassel, or William Pope L’s Whisper Campaign (2017) where plain clothed performers and small hidden speakers inside and outside museums emit phrases that elicit doubt and suspicion. Or the filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen who shows two films in each location, Tripoli Cancelled (2017) about a man stuck in an abandoned airport, and Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017) that looks at the historic but unsuccessful Non-Aligned Movement, an initiative started in 1956 by countries that aimed to unify and empower the Global South, despite the landscape of Cold War politics. This latter film seems to highlight the tremendous odds self-determination faces when attempting to tackle dominant political forces. It’s not clear that any of these artists feel solutions are in reach, but perhaps demonstrating strategies for collectivism, or simply amplifying the predominance of fear and disenfranchisement might yet yield positive actions. These art works reflect the same ambivalence that documenta itself performs, furthering a pervasive sense of mistrust and disillusion—perhaps with a dash of uncertain hope.
In Kassel, a former Tofu factory (Tofufabrik) screens two films that reiterate humanity’s heartbreaking duplicity. Inside, one super-eight projection features a young boy playing in a yard. As visitors pass through a slatted plastic screen to the left, a second full-color film projects Commensal (2017) by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Playing with the slip between fiction and fact, the face of an aging Issei Sagawa—the infamous criminal who in 1981 murdered and cannibalized a twenty-five-year-old exchange student—often fills the entire screen, whether because he is speaking, or because he appears to be lying down, chewing. In this sequence, Sagawa references the act that made him famous in the eighties, but for which he was exonerated due to strange circumstances. The closeness of the camera undermines what distance a viewer might otherwise presume, imposing an effective and uncomfortable intimacy. One cannot help but recoil at the cannibalistic narrative. You want to ask: how could this happen? Where does such desire come from? In the context of this transient museum, and perhaps because Sagawa is old, waxen, and frail—having recently suffered a cerebral hemorrhage—it is not so easy to distance oneself. I am reminded of the incriminating mesh of global capital.
How is it that the structures we have built and continue to uphold so willingly abandon refugees to circumstance, or even more generally exploit workers to produce everyday devices—for instance, the suicides that have dogged Apple’s main production factory in China such that the factory installed suicide nets around the perimeter of its buildings in 2010.18 Is this system not another form of cannibalism that implicates everyone? And perhaps worse, the sacrifice of human life and well-being that drives our appetite is not even one of erotic pleasure, but instead a compulsory desire for the newest technological objects that are doomed to expire without a conscience.
As if to demonstrate how recompense might be made in the face of historic exploitation, Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer return to sites painted by Paul Gauguin in Tahiti in their film Why Are You Angry? (2017) focusing primarily on female subjects as they eat sandwiches, sit still before modern homes, dance together, or recline in outdoor couches like models to be painted. There is a feeling that the artists are returning to Gauguin’s view, attempting to recreate it, by means of demonstrating the limitation of his non-Western fantasy—i.e. the figure wears a tank top rather than being shirtless, and the way the subjects enjoy companionship in contrast to the solitude of Gauguin’s women seems enshrined within. The work appears as a hopeful and defiant gesture, perhaps especially for its modest eighteen minutes.
Another exhibition site, The Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), is significant both for its architecture and the themes embedded within the works it contains. This place was, for me, a kind of Rosetta Stone of documenta 14, amplifying the idea of migration, political strife, learning, and the effort to translate movement into sound into image. Established in 1871, the Odeion is the first performing arts school in Modern Greece. It is further situated a stone’s throw away from Aristotle’s Lyceum, the original peripatetic university, designed by the philosopher to pair movement (or walking) with learning. Proposed by Ioannis Despotopoulos in 1959, the Odeion was rebuilt as part of a larger urban plan that, like documenta in 1955, meant to architecturally embody “Central European Rationalism and postwar attempts at broad-minded cultural policy.”
The building was never completed to fit its intended purpose due to financial troubles, until NEON, a roving non-profit cultural organization founded in 2013 by collector and entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos, recently completed the building as an exhibition space.20 The overall architecture feels deliberately incomplete as a result. Columns are only halfway clad in marble. Other walls have been finished with cinder blocks, or remain brutalist with exposed concrete—as with a large auditorium on the second floor. Here, in the dark, Emeka Ogboh’s The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017) combines a streaming ticker tape of the stock market—the only light source in the whole room—while Epirotic Song plays ambient in the background. Paired in this way, the stock market reads like a score, illustrating how readers translate information into movement, or in this case turns in the global economy.
Ogboh’s installation resonates with Lala Rukh’s Hieroglyphics (1995) one story below. Featured in another dark room, Rukh’s large suite of drawings depict an original tablature that the artist developed based on Islamic writing. A large digital animation demonstrates the relationship between sound and notation, as though to teach the audience that movement is contained in the works on paper as well, even if a reader is required to produce results. Here again, Szymczyk’s challenge comes to mind: is this how art transforms? The concept of movement throughout documenta 14 invariably has political implications, such as in Beatriz González large-scale Interior Decoration (1981). Using a historic newspaper photograph as source material, the unstretched painting features Julio César Turbay Ayala, a corrupt dictator, singing with women. Reminiscent of a large curtain, Interior Decoration emphasizes the power of provisional architecture to inscribe boundaries and filter world-views. It is worth noting that González’s installation in Kassel consists of a similarly large hanging curtain, wherein the artist instead repainted Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. In this way, González makes a correlation between political propaganda and the canon of Western art history that has, for so long, excluded so many cultures from its discourse.
Similarly, Hiwa K’s film, Preimage (Blind as The Mother Tongue) (2017), describes the artist’s experience in 1996 when he fled Iraq for Europe. A voice carries on throughout the film with poetic remembrances about his experience—what it was like, for instance, to ride in a cargo crate, sitting in the dark indefinitely for some future arrival. The screen is similarly dark for the duration of thissequence, until upon arrival, a landscape emerges and the artist retraces steps taken twenty years before while balancing a tower of mirrors on his face. To keep the structure balanced, he can only look up at the sky and thus cannot see the ground, only how it is reflected in the mirrors he carries.
Premiering at documenta in Athens was An Opera of the World (2017), a documentary by the Mali-born, New York-based filmmaker and writer, Manthia Diawara. The film focuses primarily on Bintou Were, a Sahel Opera (2007), an opera that took place in Bamako in Mali. Bintou Were is the opera’s protagonist, and the opening scenes depict her struggles with the local patriarchy, members of whom have raped her, left her pregnant, and try to further take advantage of the situation by claiming fatherhood. Rather than remain in this social structure, Were purchases the assistance of a smuggler who will bring her to Europe for a better future. The opera uses a libretto by the Chadian poet and playwright KoulsyLamko, and was originally commissioned by Prince Claus of the Netherlands through his trust. As such the opera is a complicated format to work from, steeped in colonial history, and the documentary combines footage from rehearsals of the 2007 production, with archival footage of migrants and refugees, Europeanarias, and commentary from critics Fatou Diome, Alexander Kluge, Nicole Lapierre, Richard Sennett and Diawara himself. These conversations try to unpack the politics of opera, while still meditating on the real condition that so many migrants face upon leaving one land for another. “If opera is often understood as an über-European art form—the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) invoked by composer Richard Wagner, one of the form’s most controversial proponents—Diawara chooses to meditate on its movement or migration as opposed to its expansion or totality. What happens when opera moves south, from Europe to Africa, just as so many people from that continent are moving north, in search of better lives?”21
In this way, Diawara’s film explores similar questions that documenta 14 is embroiled in: can a large Western gesture still be useful in relation to the historic socioeconomic strife and exploitation it has caused? While Diawara seems to suggest yes, the work emphasizes an accompanying puzzle for all to consider: why do we not recognize migration as an opportunity to expand and open, a moment in which to meet new potential optimistically? While Documenta remains uncomfortably two-faced, presenting compelling works in a context chosen for its economic strife, we would do well to take this scenario as an opportunity to examine duplicities riddling the most banal habits of contemporary life—the purchase of pumpkins harvested by migrant workers, for instance, or the collective reliance on fossil fuels despite the danger of a warming climate. How might documenta’s audience absorb this criticism to break the borders of inherited assumption, prioritizing instead a collective and inclusive future?
 “Connoisseurs or colonists? Documenta’s controversial stay in Athens,” The Economist, April 06, 2017.
 “Germans to run Greek regional airports in first wave of bailout privatisations,” The Guardian, August 18, 2015.
 “Connoisseurs or colonists? Documenta’s controversial stay in Athens,” The Economist.
 Doing Documenta In Athens Is Like Rich Americans Taking A Tour In A Poor African Country: An interview with Yanis
Varoufakis by Leon Kahane,” Spike Art Magazine, 2015.
 Adam Szyczyk, “Iterability and Otherness—Learning and Working form Athens,” The documenta 14 Reader, documenta
and Museum Friericianum gGmbH, Kassel, (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2017) p. 52.
 Ibid p. 29
 Dorian Batycka, “Cultural Diplomacy and Artwashing at Documenta in Athens,” Hyperallergic, June 12, 2017.
 Nikoleta Kriki, Documenta 14: “Misunderstandings,” Problems, and Solutions, Political Critique, May 23, 2017.
 Adam Szyczyk, “Iterability and Otherness—Learning and Working form Athens,” p. 23
 Hendrik Folkerts, “Nathan Pohio” Posted in public exhibitions and xcerpted from documenta 14: Daybook, 2017. Accessed July 10, 2017.
 Adam Szyczyk, “Iterability and Otherness—Learning and Working form Athens,”p. 52.
 Hendrik Folkerts, “Nathan Pohio” Posted in public exhibitions and xcerpted from documenta 14: Daybook, 2017. Accessed July 10, 2017.
 Jonathan Clayton, “More than one million refugees travel to Greece since 2015”, UNHCR: UN Refugee Agency. Accessed July 15, 2017.
 “UNICEF Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe: Regional Humanitarian Situation Report #22,” UN Children’s Fund
Report, reliefweb, 18 April 2017.
 “Refugee Crisis in the European Union,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 13, 2017.
 “Refugee Crisis in the European Union,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 13, 2017.
 Adam Szyczyk, “Iterability and Otherness—Learning and Working form Athens,” p. 30.
 Eva Dou, “Deaths of Foxconn Employees Highlight Pressures Faced by China’s Factory Workers” Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2016, and Malcolm Moore, “Mass suicide’ protest at Apple manufacturer Foxconn factory,” The Telegraph, January 11, 2012.
 “Athens Conservatoire (Odeion),” posted in Public Exhibitions, 2017.
 “Get to know Athens Conservatoire,” Athens Conservatoire. Accessed July 10, 2017.
 Monika Szewczyk, “Manthia Diawara,” Posted in Public Exhibition and excerpted from the documenta 14: Daybook. Accessed July 15, 2017.
Based in Berlin, German artist Bettina Pousttchi is known for her work in sculpture and photography, teasing out the politics of perception, particularly as it emerges through institutionalized structures—whether the exterior of a building, or the dial of a clock. Most recently, Pousttchi was featured in two concurrent, though independent, exhibitions on view in Washington, D.C.— the first, World Time Clock at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the second, Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin(2010–2014) at The Phillips Collection. Pousttchi draws our attention to the often invisible architectures that furnish and shape individual life—whether by capturing various international clocks at the same moment, or combining neon lights with the contorted guard rails used to organize crowds in public space. In the following conversation, Pousttchi discusses the ways in which the physical world is also a highly mediated experienced. This May, Pousttchi’s work came to Chicago as part of a solo installation and newly created site-specific work, Suspended Mies, at The Arts Club of Chicago.
Caroline Picard: How did you find the clocks featured in your World Time Clock photographs?
Bettina Pousttchi: World Time Clock is a project I began in 2008—over the course of eight years, I traveled throughout the globe, photographing public clocks in different time zones, but always at the same time: 1:55pm. My travels were very focused; I did not stay in most places for more than two or three days. I researched the clocks before my travels, mostly by online sources and also— more importantly—on location. In some places, it was easy to find public clocks that were still working, in other places it was nearly impossible.
CP: Did you find a correlation between the working condition of the public clocks and the condition of the city in which they resided? I am thinking about certain especially modern cities that might only have had digital clocks—would you have been interested in those?
BP: No—the project focused on analogue public clocks. It was surprising how different cities are when it comes to the existence and the maintenance of these timekeepers. In some cities, there are many that are broken, or showing the wrong time, while in others they all seem to be working. During my travels, I have noticed that there is a relation between the clock faces and the colonial history of the place. The cities which once belonged to the British Empire, for example, have more clocks than others, and some of their faces resemble Big Ben.
CP: I read an anecdote about how you occasionally arrived in a city, only to find the boundaries of that country’s timezone had been changed. The story made me interested in time as a regime, how we must agree to observe time consistently as a society in order to facilitate our interactions. Like language, the clock is a fundamental structure. For me, World Time Clock amplifies the slippery and political nature of time.
BP: Yes—timezones were introduced in the late nineteenth century as a response to humanity’s increased mobility. The system as we have it today has not changed much since then—though, during the course of my project, some countries have changed their time zones, such as Russia and Chile. Russia went from eleven time zones to nine in 2010, and then back to eleven zones in 2014. I had to adjust my project after every change.
CP: Did your physical experience of the individual works change once you they were installed in the rotunda space of The Hirshhorn? In walking around the exhibition, one could say it is almost as if the viewer experiences time standing still, since each of the photographed clocks capture the same moment.
BP: Although World Time Clock was not commissioned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, its current presentation there almost looks as if it was made for the space. The museum’s third floor ambulatory gives a great architectural setting for the work. The series of twenty-four photographs are experienced in a 360-degree loop, with no chronological or geographical order. The spectator moves from Mumbai to Los Angeles to Seoul to Moscow.
CP: Unlike Christian Marclay’s film, The Clock (2013), where one sees a series of clocks moving via found footage, the duration of your project is both tremendous in its source of impact—i.e. collecting time stamps over such a long period—and at the same time resists being directly accessible.
BP: Yes—that difference is correct; World Time Clock is a photographic project, using the specifics of the photographic medium to suggest a moment of global simultaneity, whereas Marclay’s film shows the relationship of the moving image and its history in comparison to real time.
CP: You have a second show on view at The Phillips Collection, Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin (2010–2014), which includes five sculptures in one room, and an exhibition of artworks from the permanent collection that you curated in another.
BP: Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin is a sculpture series that is made out of crowd barriers and fluorescent light tubes. They refer to Vladimir Tatlin’s concept for a tower for the Third International. This unrealized architectural structure was often quoted by following generations, including Dan Flavin with his light sculptures “monuments to V.Tatlin.” I followed this historic trajectory with a double homage, paying tribute to both of them.
CP: How did you see the role of ‘street furniture,’ the guard rails themselves, within this context?
BP: I have very often used street furniture in my sculptural works—such as crowd barriers and street bollards—as they are objects that occupy public space, and structure the way we move through it. I am interested in the relationship between those objects to the body and its movements in space.
CP: Your photo series, Parachutes (2007) features lush, dramatic clouds interrupted by the blurred figures of helicopters or fighter planes. Because many of these aircraft were designed for war, the photo reminds me of how conceptions of nature, or the heavens, serve a political ideology that we may not always be aware of. Is this question something that interests you?
BP: I am interested in the man-made organization of nature. How did we decide to structure the abstract notion of time? How do we organize the space surrounding us? Our systems of time and space are not neutral; they have political implications. We bring our own concepts and ideologies to it. With new technologies arising, our relationship to nature is changing, as well as the role of the human being within it.
BP: Echo was a photo installation in public space that I realized on Berlin’s Schlossplatz—for the duration of six months, I covered the facade of Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin on all four elevations with 970 paper posters. Together, the black-and-white prints formed one motif that recalled the Palace of the Republic, a building that had just been demolished on that very site after several years of political debate. No matter what your opinion was on destroying the former parliament building of the GDR, seeing this huge volume in the heart of Berlin disappearing was a strange experience. It unavoidably created a feeling of loss. In response to that experience I conceived Echo as an afterimage of the building that was just gone.
CP: This site of Berlin seems to epitomize the relationship between political regimes, history, popular opinion, and architecture. Especially as construction is currently underway to rebuild a new iteration of the former Prussian Palace.
BP: On Berlin’s Schlossplatz, there are many layers of German history. Over the past centuries, and especially in the past few decades, there has been a constant writing and overwriting of history and its physical manifestations in architecture. The City Castle that had been standing there for a long time was destroyed in World War II. After the war, it remained a ruin until the new state of the GDR decided to demolish it and build their new parliament building on that site, the Palace of the Republic.
After the fall of the Wall, the Palace lost its initial function and was re-used as a cultural venue for about fifteen years. After a long political debate, it was then decided to tear this building down and to reconstruct the pre-war Prussian City Castle. That construction is currently on the way. The new building will host the “Humboldt- Forum,” bringing together several ethnographic collections of World Cultures in a new museum. Echo was referring to that urban transformation.
CP: This is also why I love that Echo was not to scale, and that your installation was a black and white constellation of images that skinned a building…even if there were viewers who were convinced by the illusion of Echo’s exterior. I feel like your work not only teases out our relationship to memory, space, architecture, but also gives the viewer an opportunity for self-awareness.
BP: Yes—the 970 different photographic prints on paper poster became a physical reality in the urban landscape of Berlin.
Despite its black and white appearance, people accepted it as a new reality. Some people walked by and said “Oh look— the Palace is back.” It shows how much our perception is already intertwined the physical, real-world reality and the mediated reality. I believe we live in an “augmented reality,” more than we sometimes notice.
BETTINA POUSTTCHI (*1971, Mainz, Germany) lives and works in Berlin, and is known for her large scale photographic interventions and sculpture, exploring the connections between systems of time and space in a transnational perspective. She is represented by Buchmann Galerie in Berlin and Lugano, and has had previous solo exhibitions at Hirshhorm Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.; Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; Städtische Galerie, Wolfsburg; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; and Kunsthalle, Basel. Her most recent exhibitions, Suspended Mies, is currently on view at The Arts Club, Chicago.
Visual Work, Writing
Originally published as a series of minicomics, this quirky and idiosyncratic adventure of Fortuna, the greatest superhero (tragically stricken with ennui), is now collected into a single volume from Radiator Comics!
The Chronicles of Fortune follows the lives of Fortuna, and her alter-ego, Edith-May as they learn to cope with loss, recruiting a team of friends along the way! Discover a temperamental stove, a nosy mountain, a goofy crocodile, a loner moth, and a singing goldfish as they lead Fortuna on her greatest adventure! At once charming, sad, funny, poignant, and bizarre, The Chronicles of Fortune keeps one foot in mundane reality.
PRAISE FOR THE CHRONICLES OF FORTUNE
“Picard layers depth, even as the drawings themselves are single, thin lines that don’t even try to be exacting in their depictions, reminding me a lot of Eleanor Davis’ black and white comics….What’s great about that is how Picard draws the mundane (like office gossip sessions) exactly how she handles the unusual, like a thought-projecting mountain that moves in.” — Rob McMonigal, Favorite Indie Books from 2017
“Edith-May, loner and protagonist of Coco Picard’s graphic novel Chronicles of Fortune would hate cheerleaders, I imagine, as much she hates bachelorette parties, and for this (and many other reasons) I adore her.” —The Millions
“…the rarest of fictional treats: I was reluctant to leave this strange, haunting, depressing, enlivening, fantastical world.” —Optical Sloth
“In the guise of a fantastical hero comedy, The Chronicles of Fortune is a story about succumbing to and triumphing over loss and grief in all its forms…” – Hyperallergic
“The Chronicles Of Fortune stands as a confirmation of the misfit’s path in life. Not only is it okay to be different, it’s okay to look like a failure in the eyes of others. Who cares? Just you, you’re the only one who needs to care. And are you happy? That seems to be what Picard is asking.” – Comics Beat
“You should buy The Chronicles of Fortune, read it, then share it with someone you love.” – Entropy
“Alternately sweet, funny, and heartbreaking, The Chronicles of Fortune is a charming, lyrical meditation on fragile connections. Picard crafts tidy, seemingly unrelated vignettes which slowly knit themselves together into a touching and thoughtful finish.” -Sarah Becan [I Think You’re Sauceome / The Complete Ouija Interviews]
“At first seeming like a dreamlike biographical comic with a cool meditative art zine aesthetic, The Chronicles of Fortune slowly reveals a sweet blend of deceptively simple narrative devices and complex philosophical ideas while keeping a fun vibe through the entire book ride. You won’t regret injecting this book into your soul.”-Farel Dalrymple [Pop Gun War / The Wrenchies]
“I’ve never read a more whimsical meditation on death and loss. Picard weaves childlike escapism with playful symbolism in a series of melancholy vignettes that somehow overflow with love, humor, and hope.”-Ezra Claytan Daniels [Upgrade Soul]
“The unlikely adventures of an even less likely superhero, The Chronicles of Fortune unspools through history and happenstance gathering into its narrative orbit a ragtag crew of sidekicks and gadflies. Picard draws with the angles and tangles of a witty wire sculpture, and writes along an equally idiosyncratic path through frustration, friendship and loss.” -Edie Fake, [Gaylord Phoenix / Memory Palaces]
“Have you ever visualized the speech of a moth? Coco Picard has, and rendered it with her unerring expressive line, one many unembellished details in the universe of Chronicles of Fortune. Edith-May, who carries her etiolated super-hero alter-ego Fortuna like a guilty secret, wanders through territories historical, biological, imaginary, enchanted, and ordinary all at once, as she sets about rebuilding her life after the trauma that transformed her. Picard illuminates secret spaces and exquisitely captures the uncharted emotional terrains of loss experienced as a young adult. Seeing these fragile landscapes rather than defining them Chronicles journeys into odd and alluring worlds with tones and compositions that freshly glimpse grief and resilience. The Chronicles of Fortune, an illuminating achievement, ushers the comic form into the 21st century in all its post-human exuberance and uncertainty.” -Lin Hixon and Matthew Goulish [Every house has a door]
+ RELATED PODCASTS:
Challengers Podcast: “The Narrative of Comics, without Patrick or Dal: a discussion between Coco Picard (The Chronicles of Fortune), Jessica Campbell (Hot or Not), Anya Davidson (Band for Life), and Marnie Galloway (In the Sounds and Seas)
The survey publication presents complex questions: what to highlight and what to discard? And, perhaps more importantly: how does one communicate one’s self to future audiences? Hans Ulrich Obrist Hear Us (Black Dog Publishing and YYZ Books, 2016) is Bill Burns’s answer. Part memoir, part artistic survey, this lush hardbound volume teases out the inception, development, exaltation, and ambivalence of Burns’s artistic life, characteristically mixing documentation, critical reflection, and embellishment to revise the archetypal artistic protagonist. Contrary to the fiction of the solitary artistic genius, today’s artists are bound within a network of cultural capital. Hans Ulrich Obrist Hear Us features writing by Dan Adler, Dannys Monte de Oca Moreda, and Jennifer Allen, with a foreword by Jennifer Matotek and Stuart Reid.
Caroline Picard: In the book, your autobiographical essay feels equivalent to the documentation of the surveyed artworks. And yet, there is something about the way that the essay, being a text appearing alongside others written by curators and art critics, has a different authority.
Bill Burns: Yes, the essay is a text in a different way than the pictures are. The essay is really a story about an artist (me) who is part wide-boy and part brownnoser. He is driven by a desire to be part of international art biennials and to be a player in the art world. His memoir transpires, for the most part, in sequence. Like most narratives, it has an internal logic, and in this case, they are based on a true story. It’s the story of my life as an artist.
CP: Would you say your watercolors are also stories?
BB: The watercolors are also true stories, but they operate as non sequiturs; they follow one from the other but don’t necessarily contain an internal logic. So, I suppose they are quite different from the written text. The pictures are mostly wildlife and nature scenes, but the captions refer to seemingly unrelated professional or career events, like a hike or a camping trip with an international curator. The indexes are mixed up—not too much but enough to make the reader question and maybe doubt their accuracy or truth. For instance, a picture of several mule deer watching a geyser erupt is paired with a caption about my annoyance with a certain essayist. Maybe the pictures demand more of the reader. They don’t make as much sense as the essay.
CP: This makes me curious about how you are creating additional juxtapositions within the book. There isn’t just a single image with captions but also a series of captioned images, plus your autobiographical story, plus additional essays written by others, and additional photographic documentation…
BB: Books are objects that you hold: you are in close quarters with the words, and, in the case of pictures, especially small, detailed pictures, this experience of being in close quarters is important. For me there is also a devotional element in the work. My essay shares its title with the book, and many of the pictures refer to prayers, invoking my desire to communicate with those in power, like a supplicant’s relationship to saints or a god. This brings me to the notion of books as intimate, and the memoir form is perhaps particularly so. Our relation to a book is solitary. Like the experience of a reader of an illuminated prayer book, it is also contemplative.
CP: With that in mind, I am sensitive to the way your autobiography is choreographed: there is a mythic quality to it. At the same time, the essay is remarkably short–you skirted the tendency to write a whole epic and lengthy narrative! (I’m suddenly reminded of Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel.)
BB: In my essay, I note that people from Saskatchewan don’t talk much; I suggest this as a function of culture. There, people talk about when it’s going to rain, or when the rains will stop, or about blowing topsoil, or the price of grain. Whatever the reason, people from those parts are rarely loquacious, and my personality more or less fits this mold. That may explain my short-windedness.
CP: That makes sense, although an unexpected romanticism runs through that brevity.
BB: The first movie I ever watched was Lust for Life, the story of Vincent Van Gogh, played by Kirk Douglas. The Van Gogh character is obsessed with painting pictures of what he saw, but what he saw and depicted was completely misunderstood. Van Gogh’s tragic failure somehow appealed to me. And those who have seen the movie can attest that it is a story of passion, violence, and relatively few words. That was my first experience of a representation of the artist’s soul. My interests later turned to avant-garde artists such as William Burroughs and Joseph Beuys. In retrospect, all of these artists construct rather elaborate stories about their lives and, to some degree, their souls. The voice in my essay took this as its cue. The voice is at first self-aggrandizing, then humble, then concerned with the welfare of animals, but the narrator always seeks to advance his career. In some ways it’s the voice of neoliberalism.
CP: It is interesting that Safety Gear for Small Animals does not appear in this book. How did you decide which works to include?
BB: That long-running series of bespoke safety gear for small animals is my bread and butter, and I still show the works regularly. I mention the safety-gear project in my essay as a formative career event, but I don’t include any pictures of the equipment in my book. I kind of work around it, through my visits to the wilds and my hiking adventures with curators, museum professionals, and biennial directors.
CP: That seems like an important decision, especially as you so directly address the question and development of your career. One would presume your choice would be to feature Safety Gear all the time; I appreciated the surprise.
BB: I think of Safety Gear for Small Animals and Hans Ulrich Obrist Hear Us as ciphers for neoliberalism. Through producing and selling safety equipment such as respirators and vests, the project is dedicated to saving animals threatened by advanced industrialism by mitigating the deleterious effects of it. The project is at once well meaning and wrongheaded. I think of the new book as a way to mark our place in the current regime.
CP: The title, Hans Ulrich Obrist Hear Us, is based on an artwork of the same name, for which you hired a plane to circle around Art Basel Miami Beach with a banner featuring the same text. There is something very different about the phrase appearing in the sky above an art fair versus appearing on the cover of a book of your work—perhaps especially because Obrist’s name appears so much larger than yours.
BB: I tend to be a little loose with the titles of works. I have used the titles Hans Ulrich Obrist Hear Us, Beatrix Ruf Protect Us, and Okwui Enwezor Graciously Guide Usto refer to a set of projects and events. They use names of respected curators. The invocations paired with the names are standard prayer forms known as litanies; they belong to most Abrahamic religious traditions. And yes, two or three years ago, I hired an airplane to fly advertising banners of these invocations at Art Basel Miami Beach. It was a lot of fun. I heard from a friend that Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum, came upon his advertising banner (that read “Adam Weinberg Remember Me”) completely by chance; he was flummoxed. I have also used large electronic billboards and commercial signage to ask for intervention from internationally renowned art players. Again, they were like appeals to saints or gods. But, as you know, these people are only celebrities in an art subculture, so these works are also jokes about how important we make ourselves out to be. One thing I’m pretty certain about is that this celebrity, and the type of counter-intuitive connoisseurship that goes with it, is unique to our moment.
CP: As you mentioned, about your watercolors, much of your work has an ecological bent. Yet you’re also interested in teasing out or pulling at the art-world economies, for instance, with your Art World Celebrity Work Glove Collection. How do these poles of interest function and fluctuate together?
BB: I’m glad you asked me about this. Yes, my work has an ecological bent, and I do see this as part of or at least connected to the economy of the art world. The loss of plant, animal, and other species is an ecological tragedy, but it is also a cultural one. When I imagine our literature or art [populated by] only Atlantic salmon, coyotes, rats, pigeons, and cockroaches, I get nervous. I think the unified regime of global capitalism is at play in both the destruction of the biosphere and the shrinking of the public sphere.
CP: How so?
BB: When I mess with the art world, my main concern is our shrunken public sphere, but I rarely think of these two spheres [the biosphere and the public sphere] as separate. Artistic discourse is often silenced by opaque power structures—by, for instance, public-museum board members who are interested collectors. Transactions that would be criminal in most fields are normal in art. In short, what was considered public during Joseph Beuys’s or William Burroughs’s lifetimes has been privatized. I think we can see the same forces at play in what was once considered the commons, like wilderness or fresh water. Global capitalism is our common sense.
CP: You’ve brought neoliberalism up a few times in relation to your work. Can you say more about what you mean?
BB: I think it really speaks to our condition, this common sense of global capitalism, in which finite resources are increasingly controlled by fewer people: our possibilities seem limited. Our condition, under this regime, is sometimes characterized as schizophrenic because we hear more than one voice at a time. As I said earlier, the narrator in my essay is part wide-boy and part brownnoser. The boy is an entrepreneur, always on the make, while the brownnoser is a supplicant.
CP: I’m interested in the rapid flicker of ambivalence in your work, almost like a pulse between resistance and surrender, irony and sincerity, nature and culture (as happens literally with the “natural” images and the art-world captions), or critique and adulation. The flicker of those poles complicates the binaries. In your title, for instance: on the one hand, Obrist is appealed to as a kind of saint; on the other, I feel this phrase is a critique of curatorial celebrity and how it reflects exclusivity in the art market. So, your appeal seems slightly ironic. Additionally, your critique becomes more complex if one imagines that someone in a bookstore might quickly pick up your book and assume that Obrist is directly involved in the publication (since he writes so many books!). Can you say more about this tension that exists between the desire to be validated (and thus seeking the one who can validate), some ambivalence about the system of validation, and nevertheless benefiting by virtue of proximity to the validator’s name. It seems like a very tight network that is difficult to reject.
This issue of Antennae marks the celebration of the journal’s ten years of activity. From the very start, Antennae has provided a platform for new voices—it has outlined an academic space marked by a certain fluidity of content and freedom of format designed to foster the multidisciplinarity that is essential to the study of human/non-human relations. It is for this reason that the interview format has constantly been one of the most important publishing dimensions for the journal. It is in interviews that artists and scholars explore the side-lines of their practices, the loose and dead ends, and talk about the ‘heart of the matter’ with the same level of dedication.
It seems therefore appropriate that Antennae’s first ten years should be marked by the release of two issues entirely dedicated to the interview format. Members of Antennae’s academic and advisory boards were asked to choose their interlocutors in order to address an issue dear to them. The idea was to gather some of the most influential thinkers, artists, writers, and makers in the field of nature and art to produce an archive of contemporary outlooks framed by multidisciplinary outlooks. The result is a series of original perspectives, exchanges, and investigations that capture the essence of what it means to be working with human/non-human issues at this point of the Anthropocene. Commissioning interviews for an issue entirely dedicated to this format is a gamble — it means letting collaborators share the editorial driving seat without knowing exactly where they want to drive. But the gamble has paid off — I could have not hoped for a more colorful cast, and hope Antennae’s readers will find these interviews informative as well as inspirational.
In the spring of 2016, Allison Glenn curated In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street, an exhibition that featured eleven artists and artist collectives who installed works at ten different sites across the city of Chicago from Woodlawn to Wicker Park; these included billboard interventions, performances, and public installations. With a title inspired by the first sentence in David Markson’s novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the exhibition highlighted structures of power that organize everyday life and cultural events and subverted their effects. A long-time Chicago resident, Glenn recently relocated to New Orleans to join the organizing team of the Prospect New Orleans Triennial. She is also working on a 2018 exhibition, Out of Easy Reach, in collaboration with the DePaul Art Museum, Stony Island Arts Bank, and Gallery 400 in Chicago.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk about what inspired you to use billboards as a site for curatorial or artistic intervention in In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street?
Allison Glenn: I am passionate about employing modes of display to shift how audiences experience contemporary artworks; I believe such shifts have the propensity to expand the way we view and think about the world.
CP: How so?
CP: What made you specifically interested in the site of public advertisement? Were there art-historical precedents that inspired you?
AG: I looked to projects like Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being, specifically the advertisements she took out in the Village Voice in the 1970s, and the way ACT-UP used billboards during the 1980s AIDS crisis. The billboards I used for In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street—like many other forms of advertisement—convey demographic information that companies use to target specific audiences. I wanted to subvert this very clearly and directly, by presenting artists and artworks that spoke to or questioned the billboards themselves or the setting in which the billboards were situated.
CP: Museum administrators and funders, for instance, often worry about how to make contemporary art more accessible. In my experience, those discussions usually focus on how to get people living in distant parts of the city or suburbs into the museums: how to get them to travel there and then engage with the museum format. What strikes me about your exhibition is that you were able to use the vernacular advertising platform to bring art to an audience, allowing them to view it on their own terms. Does this seem like an overly romantic interpretation?
AG: Ha! If we’re not all romantics in this field, then what are we? I am hesitant to couch this project in the idea that I was bringing art to an audience but would rather say that I was challenging myself to think about what it really meant to work toward inclusivity, access, and equity in my curatorial practice. To position the work of artists whom I admire and respect in neighborhoods of a city that I love was an opportunity to pay homage to the physicality of Chicago and her neighborhoods. Because of where the work was placed, I was able to have different conversations with various audiences. With a changing audience was an opportunity to work with a certain central thesis and set parameters. It was also an opportunity to create a cartography of the city through my eyes.
CP: You also curated site-specific performances, sculptures, and sound into the show. How did those elements play off one another? Were there specific tensions or nuances between artworks and locations that stood out?
AG: The billboard that was chosen for the Black Athena Collective, a collaborative composed of the artists Heba Y. Amin and Dawit L. Petros, was located at 1130 West 43rd Street, on the strip of 43rd that is memorialized with the name “Honorary Muddy Waters Drive.” Assemblage (2016) is a black-and-white photographic image of a simple nomadic structure in the center of a sparse desert landscape. The placement of the photograph onto a billboard in the middle of a gorgeous bucolic landscape on the South Side of Chicago provokes dialogue about nomadic structures, migration, and diaspora so appropriate to the landscape of this neighborhood.
The theoretical and physical manifestations of bodies within public space so thoughtfully articulated by Amin and Petros were definitely considerations made in UNTITLED (OFFERINGS) (2016), a performance by Ayanah Moor and Jamila Raegan, with Krista Franklin and Anthony Williams. Through movement, song, and poetry, UNTITLED (OFFERINGS) provided a space for memorializing and self-care in this tumultuous time. This poignant moment of collective reimagining of bodies and public space came at the moment that much of the world learned of the tragic events at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016.
CP: The question of time strikes me. Museum structures tend to espouse an aura of timelessness: the objects contained within them don’t change, which suggests that the power structure that brought all of those objects together is also stable. By producing an exhibition outdoors and at different places in the city, you were able to acknowledge time differently. Not only did it take time for viewers to travel to these different sites but also the billboard is seen as a temporary platform that is constructed for a campaign of a moment.
AG: Yes, time was a huge factor. On the opening day, I remember getting off the train at the California stop on the Green Line with Derrick Adams and others. Derrick was talking about how this was his first train ride in Chicago, and we were heading to his billboard, which was located at 2841 West Madison Avenue.
I quickly looked at my phone to make sure we were staying on schedule to arrive at the West 18th Street and South Paulina Avenue plaza for a performance that was scheduled for that afternoon, and I noticed a New York Times alert of the tragic shooting at Pulse. Then information just kept flooding in, and by the time we got to the plaza, the day felt heavier, more melancholic than it had begun.
Through poetry, performance, dance, song, and other participatory movement, Moor, Raegan, Franklin, and Williams offered a moment of repose: an opportunity to pause and consider the radicality of self-care during this tumultuous time. As we stood on that plaza at 18th and Paulina, the depth of their project statement became so much more palpable: “Recent incidents of police violence and misconduct have been flooding digital and print media. The proliferation of graphic images of black trauma and death inspire call to action and protest just as it highlights the importance of gestures of memorial and self-care.”
CP: What was it about the “materiality of the built environment” that you were trying to get at? Were you specifically interested in the place-ness of Chicago? Why?
AG: There is such a love of place in Chicago. Whether from the South Side, North Side, West Side, or East Side, Chicagoans feel a strong and sometimes emotional connection to their neighborhoods. What this means of course is that Chicagoans also feel very strong emotions about neighborhoods that are not their own, and stigmas have developed over time about what and who should be where (surely with assistance from policy making on the federal and municipal levels). One of the main goals of the project was to provoke audiences to visit neighborhoods that they might not otherwise and, inversely, position works of art within spaces where one might not normally look. I also wanted to highlight other arts organizations that were engaging in similar programming. Partnering with the teams at Filmfront, ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions), and Activate provided the support to expand the vision beyond the billboards and into public plazas and brick-and-mortar spaces.
The limited spaces and opportunities for engagement with areas of the city less familiar to the art world became exciting moments for critical inquiry, site responsiveness, and the activation of interstitial spaces. The seemingly incomprehensible task of dealing with tangible divides within the city resulted in the creation of an exhibition that wove through approximately nine wards, seven neighborhoods, and along three train lines.
CP: When traveling around Chicago, one can determine the demographics of a neighborhood based on its billboards. I’ve noticed divisions within really small areas—for instance, between Humboldt Park and Bucktown or between the area directly around the University of Chicago and the neighborhood south of Cottage Grove. I feel like these are everyday examples of how divisions are inscribed and reinforced through capitalism. For me, your usage of the billboard disrupts some of those habits…
AG: It’s funny you mention disruption, because operating as a disruptor can take many forms. Like my peers and colleagues who are working toward similar goals, I find strength in subtlety. One can disrupt a system simply by working within it.
Artists, curators, and academics like Fred Wilson, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Franklin Sirmans, and Theaster Gates have demonstrated this way of thinking and being, and a younger generation of artists, curators, and cultural producers like Kimberly Drew, Rashayla Marie Brown, Cheryl Pope, and Derrick Adams are moving a similar discourse forward.
I think one particular moment speaks to this disruption. While driving around to look at the billboards after they were installed, a good friend and I stopped on Madison to view Derrick’s and Cheryl’s billboards. While on the street, we met the pastor, with his family, of the Good Shepard Grace Church that is located between the two billboards. The pastor’s wife was staring at Derrick’s billboard, which featured an image of his work Free, Black and 21, and asked, “Is this racist?!” to which I replied, “No, but it’s racial.” The conversation that transpired afterward was so rich and critical and left both of us questioning that billboard space and its impact on the community.
CP: The artist installations created a conceptual link between parts of the city that often don’t connect, but you also organized walks that embodied that connection for participants. What were some of the logistics involved?
AG: I really appreciate you noticing the conceptual link, as this is something I hoped was communicated to the audience. Accessibility was important, and the idea that a diverse audience would be able to access the sites in one day, over the course of a weekend, and at their leisure throughout the duration of the exhibition really excited me. I planned the experiential programs to coincide with particular sites, days, and interests and made sure that the billboards were placed near public-transportation options yet were also accessible to people on foot, on bikes, in a car, on a train platform, on a bus—you get the idea. In this way, the audience was challenged to locate the work and, while doing so, hopefully became invested in the dérive, the unplanned journeying through an urban environment, as coined by Guy Debord.
CP: You make reference to David Markson’s novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. So much of that book seems to be about the ways that language, history, and memory bog down or even limit effective communication. Are there particular works from In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street that circumvent that issue?
AG: Within Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the female protagonist, Kate, compulsively recollects moments in her life, literature, architecture, and the humanities in an effort to determine whether or not she is the last person left on Earth. Throughout the text, ideas are jumbled, thoughts become run-on sentences, and incomplete thoughts become facts. The crux of this cyclical narrative is that any attempt Kate makes to connect to an idea, a memory, or another human becomes seemingly impossible. Her desire to rely on her knowledge of time, space, and history, along with her inability to grasp anything concrete, creates a novel with no resolve. While it lacks crescendo, the text ultimately continues to build.
The impossibility that Kate experienced within Markson’s text inspired me. I was interested in framing the exhibition around the concepts that the book foregrounds because I saw them as an opportunity to create a parallel relationship between Kate’s frustration with time and memory and the challenge with how histories are written to exclude so many artists, curators, ideas, and concepts from the canon of art history. It may be that Kate cannot place herself in the world at all because the language she is using does not allow her access to it. In a similar fashion, all of the artists who participated in the exhibition address in their works the shortcomings and fallacies within much of the language and histories that have been provided.
CP: With this exhibition, you’re able to draw out some seemingly tireless and invisible structures that have shaped not only the art historical canon but also everyday life. Does that relate to your decision to install the show around different parts of the city?
AG: The decision to position the exhibition at sites across the city, within neighborhoods that many might not normally traverse, was a response to the first line of the book: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” Kate left messages in the street in an attempt to communicate with an audience she could not find but wanted to engage with. The usage of billboards and their content are a metaphor for Kate’s messages.