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Artforum Posts Curators Talk at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery

Posted on October 16, 2012

Artforum has featured this special video of State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 curators Constance Lewallen and Karen Moss’s public talk at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver To stream the video on their website, please continue to the Artforum website here.

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Reflecting on War Games: Heather Jones speaks with Darryl Sapien

Posted on August 2, 2013

In 1973, Darryl Sapien and performance partner Michael A. Hinton appeared in the sunken basement of a demolished building on the corner of Third and Howard Streets in San Francisco.  For an hour and half the two men, covered in war paint, wordlessly circled, shoved, wrestled, and fought with staffs while above them, two professional chess players called out the moves of their game, which were tracked by a youth on a large board visible to the audience above.  Titled War Games, the performance highlighted the truth and equilibrium created by physical combat versus the intellectualized distance of a game, bringing to mind the gap between office-bound policy makers and those on whom their decisions have a direct effect.

For the opening of State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 at The Bronx Museum of the Arts (June 23, 2013 – September 8, 2013), the artists’ sons, Joaquin Sapien and Jeffrey Hinton, re-staged War Games on the North Wing terrace of the museum. Performed nearly 40 years after the original, Son of War Games is as equally challenging and relevant as it was in the early 70’s.

From left to right: Darryl Sapien with Michael A. Hinton, Son of War Games, Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2013, credit: Frank Priscaro; War Games: Performance at Third and Howard Streets, San Francisco, 1973, credit Phillip Galgiani

HJ: Seeing the re-enactment of a historic performance by the children of the original performers was nostalgic, but also gave me a sinking feeling because I was watching the sons perform the same violence as their fathers. At the time of the original performance in 1973, War Games seemed to be a reflection on the fighting that was happening in Vietnam and violence on the streets in the United States.  What was behind the idea of having Joaquin and Jeffrey re-enact the original performance? Does Son of War Games comment on how little the cultural and political reality has changed?

DS: It’s interesting to me that you found Son of War Games to be violent. From my perspective our sons’ interaction in the performance was an explosive collision of opposing forces, but controlled and intentionally non-violent. The series of actions they performed were identical to what Mike Hinton and I did forty years ago, and followed the same pattern of escalating tests of strength and endurance. It was designed to be more like an athletic contest than a pair of gladiators. Conversely, I saw it as an alternative to so much of the destructive violence occurring around the world. In fact conflict resolution was the underlying theme of the performance.

In 1973, when the original War Games was created I was deeply interested in the relationship between performance and ritual. Much of my previous work had focused on oppositional forces coming into conflict and how that energy could be deployed constructively, destructively, or go both ways at the same time. This led me to explore ritualized forms of conflict resolution in humans and animals. The early 1970’s was also the beginning of the information age when electronic communication was replacing older forms of human interaction. My feelings were that in this transition we had somehow lost our way, that we had lost contact with the mythic, with the archetypes, with much of what had over the millennia made us who we are. I perceived that the rituals that were once the cement that held societies together had either been utterly lost or replaced by mere games, like chess for example. War Games was a reflection of that time just as Son of War Games is a response to our present time.

Today we have not just one but two wars in progress and as we look around us, our society and the world appear to grow more deadly and destructive every year. Nowadays people seem to be ever more isolated and human interaction has become so diluted by our electronic devices that even the ability or desire to conduct a face-to-face conversation is becoming an option of last resort. I think these two trends are now more in a direct correlation than they were forty years ago.

HJ: Son of War Games both embodied and made me question the allure of violence and force, particularly in American culture.  The performance also seemed to honor physical fighting over analytical games (ie. the chess match) happening concurrently.  Can you talk a bit about this division?

DS: In both versions I sought to create a contrast between a game of conflict (chess), and a conflict ritual (one of my own invention), super-imposing one upon the other in real time and in the same space. My intent was to demonstrate how ritual can bring the participants together through cathartic physical actions whereas game separates participants by creating winners and losers, thus throwing individuals and societies out of balance. It was also meant to have a generational divergence. In 1973, Mike and I were the young generation looking for a different way to channel aggression into non-lethal forms while the chess players represented the older establishment. In 2013, our sons replaced us as the young seekers of a new way to mitigate hostility, while the fathers had been subsumed into the status quo.

There is also the political aspect of the older generation plotting and strategizing on their towers at a safe remove from the action, while the young men face off mano-a-mano.

HJ: What struck me about the performance was not only its intellectual associations but also its visceral nature.  Son of War Games has been described as a re-enactment, a series of ritualized movements, and a mock fight.  How much of the performance is prescribed motions and how much true aggression is allowed to come through?

DS: The first part of the ritual was for our sons to leave their 21st century identity behind and revert to a primal state. This was marked by the mutual application of opposite colored body paint and an ‘aggressive’ mask that each painted on the other’s face. The sequence of actions that followed was structured similarly to the chess game in that it was divided into three parts, opening, mid game, and endgame. The opening movements corresponded to threat/display behavior exhibited by certain higher mammals as described by Konrad Lorenz in his 1963 book “On Aggression”. These behaviors are employed to block aggression in other con-specifics, allowing the stronger to dominate and the weaker to retreat with no serious harm done to either. The mid game was the most active and energetic section. This part incorporated aspects of the formalized conflict rituals of the Yanomamo Indians of the Orinoco River Valley, such as chest pounding, along with the stick duel, which was of my own invention. Our sons were instructed to start out the stick duel like a game but to let it evolve into a contest of strength. At the first ‘check’ in the chess game they were instructed to break the stick and use the two pieces more like a weapon, not a club mind you, but more for leverage. Once they discarded the broken stick they engaged in a Greco-Roman style of grappling, each gripping only the other’s arms or shoulders. Once the chess game ended with black defeating white, the young men physically demonstrated their attainment of equilibrium by taking turns carrying each other one time around the central ring. Following that, the fathers descended from their towers to perform the lustration, the ritual bathing of their sons. This was meant to symbolize a cleansing of hostility, but also to show the subservience of the game players to the ritual combatants. It also served to visually bring them back the 21st century. This part was very moving for Mike and I, having washed our boys as children numerous times in this instance it was more like an homage to the effort they had expended in replacing us

There was no real aggression involved between Jeffrey and Joaquin; they’ve been friends since childhood just as their fathers remain friends today. There was a good deal competitive ardor, as one would expect between two young athletic males, but no animosity whatsoever. A central premise of the performance was that they could achieve a state of equilibrium through cathartic physical action while exhausting themselves in the process. At times they seemed truly possessed by the spirit of their fathers and eager to fully embrace what Mike and I had done a generation ago. Our sons had only heard about these performances in conversation, read about them, or seen them pictured. To them what Mike and I had done in the past was almost mythical. This was their opportunity to re-live the deeds of the mythical past, which is what rituals allow us to do, and they held nothing back. In this way the sequel surpassed the original because it became a true rite of passage. One in which fathers pass their history down to their sons and the bonds between them are reinforced.

Just for the record I want to also mention the significance of symbol that was painted on the floor. It is derived from the I-Ching and is called Broken Line Changing. It is a long black bar with a gap in the middle, and the gap is surrounded by a white ring. In the performance the chess towers, painted the opposite colors of red and green, were located at the far end of the bars. The ritual combatants (also red and green) proceeded from the towers along the black bar to meet inside the white ring. Similar to chess, where control of the center is paramount, the circle inside the white ring became the territory contested by the two combatants. One would hold the center while the challenger would circle around the ring looking for an opening and attempt to push his adversary out of the center to hold it himself. That is until the end, when the ring became the bridge that would unite the opposites.

From left to right: War Games: Performance at Third and Howard Streets, San Francisco, 1973, credit Phillip Galgiani; Darryl Sapien with Michael A. Hinton, Son of War Games, Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2013, credit: Frank Priscaro

War Games is on view in the ICI touring exhibition State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York from June 23, 2013 – September 8, 2013.

***Heather Jones is currently an Exhibitions Intern at ICI. She is completing her Masters in Curatorial Studies and Law at Stockholm University and is enrolled in the Architectural Theory and History Program at the Royal Academy of Art, Stockholm.

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Performance Now featured in the Kansas City Star and the Pitch

Posted on September 5, 2013

The Kansas City Star‘s Sunday paper recently featured a large, 2-page spread reflecting on the touring exhibition Performance Now. Covering many of the works in depth, the article focuses on works by Claire Fontaine, Marina Abramovic, Clifford Owens and more.

“Co-organized by Independent Curators International, New York, and Performa, a biennial of performance art organized by RoseLee Goldberg, “Performance Now” is an extraordinary show, providing an opportunity to see almost a decade’s worth of landmark performances.”

Continue to read the full article on line here.

Additionally, the exhibition was covered by the Pitch, stating:
“The sheer scale of Performance Now is daunting enough to make repeat visits necessary, at least if you want to gather more than surface impressions. The depth in Goldberg’s exhibition is in its genuine, nostalgic love for performance — for preserving and cataloging these seemingly ephemeral projects. The result is a traveling scrapbook of comedy and confrontation, ready to fascinate and prod but also to entertain.”

You can continue to read the Pitch article online here as well.

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Project 35 Volume 2 Video from Fresh Milk, Barbados

Posted on November 14, 2013

Project 35 Volume 2 toured to Fresh Milk Art Platform, a leading non-profit artist-led space located under a grove of mahogany trees in the middle of a working dairy farm in St. George Barbados. As part of Fresh Milk’s public event Fresh Milk XIII, a selection from Project 35 Volume 2 was screened on Oct 24th, 2013 at the Milking Parlour Studio. Working to bring together emerging talents across different cultures and support contemporary creatives, Fresh Milk has incorporated ICI’s Project 35 Volume 2 into its vigorous curatorial practice. Find out more about the event and Fresh Milk at http://freshmilkbarbados.com/.

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State of Mind in The University of Chicago Magazine

Posted on November 15, 2013

ICI’s traveling exhibition State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 has been on view at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago since October 2nd, 2013. In the November – December 2013 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine, Katherine Muhlenkamp, an alumni of the University, penned an account of an unique experience of this recent installation. She notes that looking at the flashed images by Joe Hawley, Mel Henderson and Alfred Young in Searchlights; Oil; and Yellow Cabs, the “audience couldn’t help but laugh at the aerial shots of bumper-to-bumper cars”. Bringing together the curatorial ideas of the co-curators Karen Moss and Constance Lewallen, Muhlenkamp explores the experimental Conceptual art of California represented in the exhibition.

Continue to read the complete article here:

A Conversation between Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello on BOMB Magazine

Posted on November 27, 2013

BOMB Magazine has published a conversation between Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello in their current Fall 2013 issue. In this sincere and witty interview, the two artists share common interests about the punk music scene separately on the US East and West coasts and how this early contact with music led them to work as visual and sound artists. They also share their first experiences into the art world and the stories of people they worked with, who were then and still are major influences on their works.

Like a lot of people, I first heard about Stephen Vitiello’s work in 2000, in relation to his residency at the World Trade Center where he was using light sensors to generate sound. In 2004 we were both in the exhibition Treble at SculptureCenter. Regine Basha, the show’s curator, kept telling me that Stephen and I needed to meet, so we did, over lunch. Our respective works in the show were indicative of where we collide and separate in relation to sound. I’d spent several days in the basement using ice cubes and candles to trim the tops and bottoms off of 100 wine bottles that would eventually amplify the sound of 100 tiny speakers—as usual, my process was messy and far from precise. Stephen, on the other hand, had hung several speakers from long wires in an absolutely elegant formation—his piece felt like it would fit comfortably in a Brunelleschi dome. When I got close to his speakers, I could see them moving, and I realized that while I couldn’t hear sound, it was definitely moving through the speakers. I was blown away by the fact that his work put me in the situation of looking at sound rather than listening to it. Sound is simply one of many ingredients in my practice, but it is generally the focus and the primary material of Stephen’s work. Since we met, sound has played an enormous role in the conversations, performances, recordings, and installations we have worked on together, but most importantly, it’s what we have geeked out on together in hundreds of conversations like this one.

—Steve Roden



Steve Roden We both came to music and art via the punk scenes on opposite coasts—you on the East, and me on the West.

Stephen Vitiello Did your interest in music and art begin with punk rock or before that?

SR When I was 12, I was into Jimmy Hendrix. His was the first music I became obsessed with—my mom actually made me a Hendrix birthday cake! I scoured flea markets for bootlegs and rare releases. I was also into German Expressionism, particularly George Grosz, for his combination of cartooning and heavy-duty violence. (My dark angst settled in at age 13.) I’ve been infected by everything I’ve paid attention to, no matter how obscure. One strong memory is of a group of flying bees in the early Gumby animations called the Groobees. They were a riff on carpenter bees and would build crates around everything: people, cars, dogs… the forms were like that Magritte painting of a coffin sitting upright. While working on Bowrain (2010), a large-scale installation involving hundreds of pieces of wood wired together, I realized that my aesthetic is pretty close to the Groobees’: visual decisions arise out of necessity or limitation, rather than vision. How about yourself?

SV I was obsessed with the Rolling Stones. My mother took me to see them when I was 11. My best friend and I would listen to side three of Hot Rocks over and over. As I got older, there were other rock bands, but things changed most dramatically (at least in my memory) when I started listening to the Ramones and the Dead Boys, and then British punk bands like the Buzzcocks and the Clash. The one record from that era that I still go back to and enjoy just as much as I did back then is Television’s Marquee Moon. I started learning to play guitar with friends when I was 12 and then met The Stimulators, whose band members lived in that infamous building on East 12th Street. I’d go over for guitar lessons and could sometimes stay overnight if Allen Ginsberg, their roommate, was out of town.

SR Both of us managed to enter the punk scene at a relatively young age. At 14, I rode my bike to the Whiskey a Go-Go expecting to see a Hendrix impersonator and happened upon The Screamers. When I got home that evening I painted a “No Left Turn” sign on my Hendrix shirt and cut off my long hair—a few days later, I dyed it black. Then I started a band with some friends, half of whom could not play instruments. We called the band Seditionaries after Malcolm McLaren’s shop, where the Sex Pistols met. We never met anyone like Allen Ginsberg, but we did get to hang out with The Damned!

The early punk scene was positive and full of idealism. In many ways we were a cliché, being critical of the government, society, the army, and religion—I wrote a song called “Jesus Needs a Haircut!” Certainly we were naive, but for us there was value in making music that had no commercial relevance. Value for us was dependent upon integrity rather than the market.

SV For me, between the Stones and the Ramones there were lots of the predictable groups: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy. I always responded to texture and an impression of sound and production, and almost never knew the lyrics, even if I listened to a record until it was scratched beyond use. By the way, so cool that you met The Damned. I remember meeting them as well; I was sitting in their dressing room until they finally, and very politely, asked me to leave. There’s another flash memory of playing pinball with two of The Cramps. Being 14 or 15 made it easier for people to be nice to us. The first band I played in was called the Offals. Our first show was reviewed in the New York Times. The reviewer said we were either “Awful or funny, depending on your tolerance level.” I just came across two scrapbooks from that time filled with photos, flyers, and newspaper ads that I’d passionately collected and assembled. It feels like more than a lifetime ago, but I recognize a part of who I am in those books.

So while most of my references before my early twenties were musical, it seems like art was important to you from a much earlier age. Did you have any vision at the time that your future might be laced with both?

SR As a kid I always wanted to be an artist. On the other hand, I probably never would’ve started working with sound (or text, performance, video, and film) had I not been part of the punk scene. Starting a band without any technical knowledge of music offered us the freedom to just dive into a medium. When I made my first film in 1988, or released my first CD in 1993, So Delicate and Strangely Made, I didn’t feel that I was unqualified to work in these mediums. It wasn’t about being a genius as much as about being comfortable experimenting. I still can’t read music or play an instrument. When I was the lead singer of Seditionaries, all I needed to know was how to yell very loudly into a microphone.

SV I identify with punk leading to a future in art. Also, working with Nam June Paik gave me the sense that I could step out in any number of directions. In 1994, Nam June asked me to document a month of Fluxus performances at Anthology Film Archives. I told him I was a musician, not a video artist, and he replied, “It’ll make you a better musician.” That exposure did. It also suggested a much more interesting future.

When you and I first met, I proposed a fairly simple (maybe mediocre) idea: that we each record a mono track in our own spaces on the West and East coasts and then combine them into a stereo recording, with your sounds on the left (West) and mine on the right (East). Often starting with a simple idea leads to some better discovery along the way. We never made the piece, but we’ve definitely managed to find parallel moments. We got involved with performing music at a young age and have evolved into artists who function in-between music and art.

SR I talk a lot about the burden of a good idea when I teach. A good idea is complex and exciting, and generally better in your head than in its realization. Dumb ideas—or as you say, simple ideas—need to be mulled over, reinterpreted, redefined, and continually expanded upon until they begin to offer you multiple paths. A few years ago I taught a two-day workshop using La Monte Young’s 1961 Composition No. 1, a score with the single direction: “Draw a straight line and follow it.” It was fantastic to spend so much time trying to figure out how many ways one could follow the instruction.

SV I’m pretty sure I told you that at a collector’s dinner in Austin last summer, three different people congratulated me on pieces that were actually yours. Yet in fact we’re quite different. You work primarily with systems (for sound and for painting) and tend to begin with a clear idea of where you’re headed, whereas I often come to the conceptual elements of my work through experience. Also, the visual part of your practice is as important as the sound, while in my work, the visual component is a smaller part—and often an artifact—of the sound work. For example, photographs that come out of the experience of field recording, or the speaker drawings that were my attempt at a form of automatic drawing (and were inspired by William Anastasi’s Subway Drawings in particular). Or the visual frames I design around the sound, such as lighting for sound installations where I hope people will listen first and look second.

SR Brian Eno was an early influence, partially because he offered me a kind of primer for John Cage through his use of limitations, chance operations, and the “Oblique Strategies” to prompt creative thinking. This was before I knew anything about Fluxus, Steve Reich, Sol LeWitt, or text scores. Anastasi’s Subway Drawings were a big part of an aha moment for me as well, along with the discovery of Tom Marioni’s drum brush drawings from the 1970s and Terry Fox’s Children’s Tapes videos. After these discoveries, I made an early attempt to combine performance, process, and artifact: it was a painting for Eric Dolphy called Mouthpiece (1992) done by holding the brush in my mouth instead of my hands.

I arrived at Cage on my first day of undergrad art theory class. Wanda Westcoast, the teacher, played three long reels of Cage talking. All I remember was that they were impossible to follow. Over time, the words had no meaning, and we all sat there listening to words as sound. She didn’t give us any context. Talk about immersion!

SV Amazing, a teacher named Wanda Westcoast! Back in college, I also had those moments, like soft jolts of electricity that opened up future thinking for me. In a film studies class, my professor Tom Gunning was talking about the pre-cinematic “phantasmagoria,” a form of spook show with distant voices and magic-lantern slides projected onto moving surfaces. As he described it, I could see and hear glimpses of something wonderful. Four years later I did sound for an installation by Tony Oursler called Crypt Craft (1989), which was a mix of images and voices in a dark room. Tony Conrad’s voice came out of the mouth of a dragon, children trapped in small monitors hung from a chandelier, and a pirate sang songs about toxicity. In many of my installations I have strived for the immersive experience that I imagine the phantasmagoria performances offered. Hopefully they’re not as kitsch, and they create a space outside of everyday experience.

Another memory from French literature class: We read Friday by Michel Tournier, a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story. There’s a scene where Friday wrestles with a goat and the goat dies. In the following passages, he is treating the goatskin, but we don’t know what’s coming. Then Crusoe is walking through the forest and hears what sounds like beautiful choral music. Every sound of the forest comes to life, amplified in his consciousness. When he emerges onto the beach, he sees that Friday has turned the goatskin into a kite: it has holes in it and has become an instrument being played by the wind. I was so emotionally struck by that section. It set something in motion that I still connect to many years later when I’m doing field recordings in incredible places.

As a teacher (at Virginia Commonwealth University), I bring to class a lot of the films, videos, and audio works that have inspired me. I plan classes as a form of curating to trigger sets of connections that will excite students. Every once in a while I recognize that someone is listening or looking in a new way for the first time.

SR Yes, probably the best part of my education was the things that people shared, rather than said. I mean, nothing really happens when you talk about Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou . . . You have to be confronted by its presence so it can really mess you up!

A required English class with Bernard Cooper, which I initially tried very hard to get out of since I had very little interest in reading and writing, absolutely changed my life. On the first day we read short stories by Kafka and Calvino, and we were assigned to write surrealist poems. Suddenly there was this huge connection between literature and the visual art I was interested in. When I did my third year of undergrad in Paris I didn’t speak any French, so I went to a bookstore and bought a copy of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and moved on to Thomas Mann, Hesse, Kafka, Borges, and Cocteau. Those books became my friends as well as my inspirations, eventually leading me to explore writing as a medium. My biggest writing project so far is called 365 × 433. For the entire year of 2011, I performed Cage’s 4’33’‘ every day and wrote about each performance. It started as a listening experience, but very quickly became a daily writing project. Each entry is treated in a different way, ranging from concrete poetry to essays, descriptions, and so on. So every time I run into Bernard I embarrass the hell out of him because I tell him that he changed my life.

I was also lucky to work with Mike Kelley and Stephen Prina in grad school. At the time, Prina was working on a project that involved making a watercolor for every one of Manet’s paintings to actual size. The way he conversed with his sources had an enormous impact on my practice. Mike I had known since undergrad; we connected because of the punk scene and our crazy taste in music. I’m pretty sure he had little interest in my work and was probably aghast at the things I was reading (Rilke, Lagerkvist, Hamsun). I wrote my grad thesis in the form of an early 20th-century German parable, and at my final committee meeting, the first thing Mike said was, “I don’t know why you didn’t write it in surfer talk.” It pissed me off. But he was good at making a snide comment that would haunt you for days, and once you dug beneath the juvenile veneer, you’d realize he was offering brilliant advice. He was kicking my ass for being too precious.

SV I didn’t study art in college. I was in the band Crazy Sunday with Gregory Crewdson and Tom Burkhardt, and almost all of my friends were artists, but I didn’t envision myself as an artist at the time. I think I ended up with a gallery—The Project, in 2000—because I wasn’t looking for one. After years of creating soundtracks for other artists, in the late ’90s I started to present installations and apply for studio residencies. Still, I wasn’t moving with any definite vision; I was just feeling my way forward. When Christian Haye from The Project came for my first studio visit, he was three hours late.

I was so mad when he finally arrived that I told him I had nothing to show or play for him anyway. Weirdly, that dysfunctional beginning led to nine years of representation. How did you first start to show in galleries?

SR I had my first solo show in 1985, while still an undergrad, in a record store called Texas in Santa Monica, CA. After grad school, I was in several artist-curated shows in places like empty storefronts or people’s living rooms. Representation came maybe five years later through a friend who knew someone who was opening a gallery. I was with them from 1994–1997 but I left under very bad circumstances. I thought I’d never work within a commercial gallery context again. I didn’t show for five years and no one in LA would touch my work. Then, in 2003, I was invited by Rebecca McGrew to do a show at the Pomona College Museum of Art. At the same time, I was offered a very small project show with Susanne Vielmetter, whom I’ve been working with ever since. Both shows were reviewed, and while my career didn’t really change at that moment, it was the first time that critics and the “in crowd” started to look more seriously at my work. More importantly, it was the beginning of my relationship with Susanne’s gallery, and that certainly changed the course of my career.

SV The first New York solo show I was offered was at a tiny gallery in the East Village called Gaga. Beverly Semmes introduced me to the gallery owner. He said he couldn’t spend a month listening to a sound piece, but I could have a show if I’d also be the gallery sitter. I said no.

I had my first solo show at the Texas Gallery in Houston. Fredericka Hunter, who runs the gallery, encouraged me to step carefully into the art world and suggested I stay as far as possible from making things that could easily be commodified. Soon after, someone at Creative Capital encouraged me to look to non-art spaces and avoid the gallery world altogether. It was smart advice, but back then I wasn’t sure how to make such a thing happen. That said, I was excited when I started to show with The Project, partly because it seemed to suggest a career path, but even more so because they had such great artists: Julie Mehretu, Paul Pfeiffer, María Elena González, and William Pope L., to name a few. It was like entering into a long-term, well-curated group show. But those early suggestions had a lot of value because the projects I’ve felt most fulfilled by in the last four years—at the High Line, MASS MoCA, and a project with John Kaldor in Australia—have been commissions about sound’s engagement with architecture. They still end up connecting to an art audience, but through a relationship with structures, rather than by my making things that fit into white boxes. I’m not critical of that way of working; it just hasn’t been the most successful for me. I favor unusual or problematic spaces. I feel most inspired when there’s something to respond to—it can be a room’s strange acoustic quality, for example. When faced with the clean slate of a traditional gallery or museum space, I find less to speak to than when given a triangular-shaped room or a place where sound needs to engage not only with a public but also with the potentially unpredictable interactions of nature or machines. Now I work with American Contemporary, but it’s been years since I did a show there.

I generally connect with your gallery work but it’s also often the ephemeral pieces that excite me most—the small speakers, cardboard, and paint. I’m thinking of when books are like butterflies (2008) and fulgurites (2004), or the architectural model where you crafted something from paper or cardboard and sticks as a sketch for a larger piece. Some of those works will probably be a nightmare for future registrars, but one feels and hears their fragility and experiencing that is important.

SR I don’t really see these materials—cardboard, plaster wrap, or cheap speakers—as ephemeral, but rather as coming out of things like Arte Povera.

It is much more appealing to tinker with scotch tape and cardboard, since they are immediate. I want to be able to make work with whatever is at hand. I paint in oils on linen with aluminum stretchers too, and that stuff is not cheap. It’s more about which materials will function best in each situation. I want the work to feel human and vulnerable, so the materials should reflect that. In your case, the materials are truly ephemeral—light and sound—and therefore relatively unconventional for a commercial gallery. I have the opposite problem; the breadth of my practice has caused some confusion. My first painting show outside of the US was in Italy, but because in Europe I work with sound a lot more, the opening was packed with sound geeks. Some people were convinced that a different Steve Roden had made the paintings!

I’m still very excited about how each medium offers me a different experience as a maker. The ideas, resonances, or conceptual processes are not medium-specific. In 2008 I had a breakthrough when I used a musical score that I found in a box in my grandmother’s garage to develop an entire body of work. I figured out various ways in which the score might generate paintings, collages, a film, sculpture, several sound pieces, and new scores. My process is really about interpretation—I am constantly reinterpreting seemingly finite information. In this case, the seven notes of the scale and the order of those notes in the score determined color choices, lengths of lines, the visual application of collage elements, the number of parts and their colors and lengths, the speed of a hand-drawn film, etcetera. It’s not as rigid as it sounds . . . I’m using the score or rules as triggers for intuitive actions, and I break my own rules.

SV We were both in the Silence show at the Menil Collection (and then at the Berkeley Art Museum). We’ve both been in lots of sound shows where the common thread is technology. This show was based on Cage’s notions of silence and its connection to the visual arts. My piece translated light frequencies into sound, and used audible frequencies of light and occasional sounds from the environment outside the museum, to generate a very quiet ongoing composition. It’s my only interactive work. At the Menil, there were two solar cells mounted in homemade parabolas on the wall. On the opposite wall and in the floorboards, there were speakers. The piece was positioned next to a wonderful window. The sunlight affected the sound of the piece, as did the 120-cycle hum from the gallery lighting. As visitors came into the field of the solar cells’ vision, they also cast audible shadows: flutters and sonic bumps. An added factor was a Bruce Nauman neon piece in an adjoining room that would turn on and off. The reflection of light and the rhythm of the Nauman became co-opted by my system and added a buzz of electricity to the mix.

SR One of the best aspects of the show was that silence was very present—even in works like your own, which generated sound. It moved away from a white monochrome model to a much more interesting conversation. That I was able to show large colorful paintings, a sculpture with fluorescent Plexiglas, and 365 × 433 suggests that silence can be complicated and sometimes messy.

SV I used to try to cover so much when someone would ask, “What do you do?” Now, I just focus on one part of what I do, so that I’ll keep the person’s interest, and so my response might meet social conventions. Once a doctor asked me what I did and I said I was a sound artist. He misheard me, as often happens, and talked for the longest time with great enthusiasm about why he loved “sand art.” It was sad to have to finally interrupt and correct him. Then there’s the issue of visual consistency. I remember a gallery owner visiting me in the World Trade Center and asking, “What’s your thing? Christian Marclay does records. What do you do?” I was very proud to say, “I listen to buildings.” She wasn’t impressed.

I think of what our friend in Ireland, Mick O’Shea, once told me. He said that if he brings his gallery a drawing, they price it at 1000 Euros, but if it’s a drawing that comes with a sound element (a CD of sounds he created while drawing, for example), they price it at 400 Euros.

SR I might’ve told you before that every time I call my mom to tell her about an exhibition or event the first thing she asks is, “Is it art or music?” I keep telling her they’re the same thing.

SV The Silence show was a highlight, and also the concert with you at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. That was a case of listening to a building, listening to paintings, and also listening to each other. You initiated the discussions for that performance with the idea of playing with recordings of silence, and in particular, silence on vinyl records that would add the element of surface noise. In the end, the recordings we used varied from a recording of John Cage’s 4’33’‘ to a record of a Marcel Marceau performance. We were both affected by the way those sounds functioned in the Rothko Chapel, but we were also very aware of how the physical presence of the paintings alters one’s emotional interaction with anything that goes on in that space.

Collaboration comes up fairly often for both of us. In music it’s not unusual to consider collaboration, but for someone with a studio practice it’s not the obvious choice.

SR When you work with people with whom you have a history, like we have done, there is a pretty clear understanding of each other’s sensibilities. Then there is the random adventure of suddenly working with folks you don’t know very well. In that case the value lies in the actual experience, and the results seem to be less important to me. Our collaboration at the Rothko Chapel was an entirely different animal. It was a dream gig, which made it feel a bit overwhelming from the get-go. It was not so much about learning as it was about simply being in the moment, since that experience will never happen again.

One of the most important collaborations for me consisted of meeting with Simone Forti, and at times Rae Shao-Lan Blum, once a week for nearly a year. We never planned ahead nor spoke much, but we improvised sound with acoustic objects, and moved around the space— sometimes like animals, sometimes like dancers, and sometimes like people.

I came to know Simone as a kind of Zen master—she would suggest a simple action or idea that would provoke me. She has a knack for talking about something that seems relatively insignificant but which then slowly begins to grow inside you.

One afternoon, at the end of one of these improvisations, we were talking about writing and Simone casually invited me to do a reading with her and Anne Tardos. I thought, Are you crazy? You want me to do my first public reading ever of my own writing with you and Anne Tardos? A few weeks later, there I was in front of a small audience at Beyond Baroque, reading for 15 minutes in a nervous wobbly voice while sweat rolled down my face. Later, writing became an integral part of my practice. We all need someone to provoke us.

SV I had a similar experience. In 1998, I met Pauline Oliveros in Germany and asked if I could study with her. She said, “No, you’ll perform with me and Joe McPhee next week in New York.” It was a scary way to perform one of my first improvised concerts. Pauline and Joe are both brilliant improvisers who are uniquely perceptive to all of the sounds around them. To perform with them encouraged me to trust in the potential of spontaneity.

I like collaborating when, as you describe with Simone, someone pushes you to take chances. I’m careful, though, and try to understand the terms from the beginning: Am I making something with someone, or for that person? In the past I did a lot of music for visual artists. Often the sound was for the image, and thus, secondary. Julie Mehretu asked me to collaborate on a project in 2006, and I was happy that she wanted to work as equals. We spent ten days together at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. I brought some unedited sound elements with me and started to play them for Julie. As she listened, she began a large wall drawing. As she drew, I modified the sounds in response to her drawing, which had elements of a graphic score for me. We had a sculptural element too—a line of speakers that were suspended throughout the space.

Collaboration is also a social outlet for me. I moved from NYC to Virginia nine years ago. It’s harder and harder to retain friendships, partly because of distance, and partly because of age and circumstance. Collaborating with someone will put us in touch.

Most of my concerts and CDs in recent years have been collaborative, while the majority of my installations have been solo projects. But you and I created an installation in Marfa in 2008 (for The Marfa Projects, organized by Ballroom Marfa), and now we’re working together on Governor’s Island. This installation involves a journey for those who take the ferry out to get to the chapel where the piece is installed. We’ve created sounds in the space and amplified what many might consider ambient or incidental sounds.

A lot of the installations I’ve made are site-specific and, generally, not repeated. So many considerations go into the design that they don’t usually fit into another box. When I created A Bell For Every Minute for the High Line in 2010, for instance, I didn’t know if it would ever be presented anywhere else. The piece was there for a year. Recently Barbara London approached me about presenting A Bell at MoMA, as part of the show Soundings: A Contemporary Score that opens in August, and although I was thrilled, I didn’t think it would work in a museum black box. We spoke about various spaces and agreed on the Sculpture Garden. I’m hoping that there will be a similar harmony between the bells and the sculptures, the noise of 54th Street, and the timed interruptions of the bells ringing every minute.

You have two solo shows opening in September. Do you want to talk about them some?

SR Everything I’m working on now began in 2006 during a visit to Berlin. A friend invited me to see an exhibition of Walter Benjamin’s notebooks. Since I don’t speak or read German, the notebooks felt like drawings. As I began to notice various graphic decisions—symbols, colors, notations—the whole thing resonated deeply. I wouldn’t let my friend decipher what we were looking at, and I felt a need to spend time with this material. Initially, my research proposals caused a bit of anger because I wanted to work with the notes of one of the most important philosophers of the last century, and I was unable to read them. Amazingly, in 2011, the DAAD and Singuhr–Hörgalerie managed to get me a research residency for five weeks at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where the Benjamin archives are housed. I ended up looking at a lot of scribbly lines and built an archive of Benjamin’s various graphic decisions—the way he crossed out his mistakes or how he used colored ticks as a system and organizational principle, for instance. I looked at what was left of his childhood postcard collection and also the theme symbols from the Arcades Project notes. In early 2012, I created my first works from that research: an eight-channel sound work using the theme symbols as a graphic score, shown in Berlin, and a large three-channel video/sound projection at LACE in Los Angeles. The works for the upcoming shows are an attempt to continue to reinterpret that information and generate paintings, drawings, sound, and sculpture.

SV We began talking about the music we listened to when we were younger and how it’s informed the work that we each do now. I had an emotional connection to the bands and songs that I loved; they meant so much to me at the time.

I still seek out new music constantly, but the emotional connection comes more often from environmental sounds and the process of recording, often with friends. You and I shared an experience last week on the ferry back from Governor’s Island: as the ferry was idling, I had my recorder out. I was hoping I could get the sound of the ship’s horn when leaving port. The moment came and the sound was beautiful—loud and clear and resonant. We could hear the sound reflect off the water. Then a second ship surprised us by responding from somewhere else in the harbor. The call and response made the moment magical.

Watch a Video of Roden and Vitiello’s 2013 collaboration on Governor’s Island: http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7344

Source: http://bombsite.com/issues/125/articles/7319

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Cultivating the Human & Ecological Garden: A Conversation with Bonnie Ora Sherk

Posted on December 17, 2013

Cultivating the Human & Ecological Garden: A Conversation with Bonnie Ora Sherk, October 5, 2013 Bonnie Ora Sherk.

Bonnie Ora Sherk. Scene From PUBLIC LUNCH, February, 1971 – Lion House, San Francisco Zoo.

Bonnie Ora Sherk’s visionary work started in the very early 1970s in San Francisco with the creation of environments such as Portable Parks 1-111 (1970-71) on the elevated freeway, and performances such as Public Lunch (1971) at the San Francisco Zoo. Her early works exhibited in State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 inserted a unique, environment-conscious, voice within the Conceptual Art movement growing in California at that time. They were the very first steps for Sherk’s explorations into human beings’ relationships with the natural world. A conceptual and transformational, public practice artist, Sherk is above all a human being who learned from nature and aims to share knowledge about ecology, art, and systems, through larger-scope community projects such as A Living Library. In this conversation, Sherk reflected on her earliest works and her most recent projects, giving an insight on her trajectory as an artist, an educator, and a cultivator – literally and metaphorically – through a few decades’ time.

Pierre-François Galpin: Regarding the exhibition State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970, could you speak about the California art scene at that time? When did you arrive in San Francisco?

Bonnie Ora Sherk: I arrived in San Francisco in the very late 1960s. I had just graduated from Douglass College, Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and it was time for a new adventure, to do something different! I had never been to California before, but I was aware of the Summer of Love (1967), so it was of interest, of course. When I first came, it took me about a year to feel comfortable, as I am very sensitive to the environment, landscape, and vegetation; everything was different from the East Coast.  In California, the landscape seemed very dry, and not very green.  I was born in Massachusetts, and I moved around with my family in Maryland and Virginia, until we settled in New Jersey when I was in second grade. I was living very close to New York City, experiencing the metropolitan region and city life.  The town where I lived, Montclair, New Jersey, had fabulous old, deciduous trees; it was very leafy, green, and beautiful.

PFG: What do you think was specific to the California art community compared to other art scenes, especially New York? Were you aware of the art scene in San Francisco?

BOS:  When I first arrived in San Francisco, I knew very few people, and initially none from the art community. But, I became a graduate student in Fine Arts at San Francisco State University, and, in 1970, I began to meet serious, professional artists, when I created my first public project, Portable Parks I-III, which transformed “dead spaces” into ephemeral, bucolic, green places.  Portable Parks brought trees, live animals, and other related elements to an elevated freeway, concrete islands next to a freeway off-ramp, and a whole street that was closed off, creating temporary parks, each increasingly more participatory.

Around that same time I met Tom Marioni, Terry Fox, and other artists involved with Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco.  I really resonated with their work. I felt at home.  It was a very exciting period for art, and for me. It felt open and freeing – very innovative, moving, beautiful, and at the same time – challenging.

After Portable Parks, I began exploring the nature of what a performance could be, including its environment and context – either found or created, and who the audience could be.  In Portable Parks, I used live animals as elements in the work, and considered them to be performers, as was I.  The places for the performances were also important, and functioned as integral to the works.  I considered these pieces to be environmental performance sculptures.

At that time, and still now, my work has to do with equality between humans, and other species.  In later works, like Public Lunch, Living In The Forest (1973), and The Raw Egg Animal Theater at The Farm, I created juxtapositions of humans and other animals in performances and installations, to call attention to issues of racism, sexism, and child abuse.  I was, and still am, with A Living Library, working on a more planetary, ecological understanding of who, and where, we are in the universe and on the planet, in relation to other species and phenomena.

During that early period, I was not thinking so much about my career and exhibitions; that was not the main point or issue. I was exploring different ways to express ideas and feelings, and communicate what I was experiencing and learning. The art world did not appear to be interested, supportive, or understanding of what I was doing then.  I had to create my own venues and opportunities, although a few of the artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, showed some interest.

PFG: Could you talk about the relationship between conceptual art and ecology in your own practice, in Public Lunch, for instance?

BOS: During Public Lunch at the San Francisco Zoo, I had a human meal in the Lion House, adjacent to cages in which lions and tigers were having their meals of raw meat. At this time, I had been thinking a lot about analogies in diverse forms, and juxtapositions of imagery. I thought it would be interesting to have lunch at the same time as the lions and tigers, at the public feeding time of 2 pm, when people come to the Zoo to see the animals being fed.  I was one of the animals being fed.  In the cage with me was another cage with a rat inside – a cage, within a cage, within a cage.  Who is in the cage?

The idea for Public Lunch was initially inspired by room service breakfast I ordered when I stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, as a guest of Mademoiselle Magazine, which had named me as a Woman of The Year (1970), for my work with Portable Parks.  For breakfast, I ordered a very simple meal of poached eggs on toast and black coffee.  A very elaborate table was wheeled into my room, with a white tablecloth and many covered dishes.  After breakfast, I walked to the Central Park Zoo and visited the Lion House, and the total vision for the piece crystallized.  When I returned to San Francisco, I approached the Zoo staff and they agreed to let me do this performance.

Public Lunch began when I was let into my cage from the outdoor cage in a similar way as the other animals.  During the course of the performance, I paced, as did the tigers next to me, and I ate a human meal, served in a similar way as the other animals, through the bars in a small cage door.  I ate a grilled steak, salad, bread and butter, and drank a cup of coffee, while the tigers and lions ate raw meat.  After I ate, I paced some more, and then climbed up a ladder to the platform in my cage.  I spent some time writing, (another human activity), and then lay down and looked up at the skylight above, seeing birds flying overhead.  The tiger in the adjacent cage, who was also on his platform eating, turned around, got up on his haunches, peered over, looking at me.  I could tell that he was perceiving me, and I thought,
“ He sees me.  Is he thinking and feeling, too?  What is he thinking?”

That awareness led me to begin working with different species of animals, studying their behavior, interactions, and communications, and closely observing them. I learned about ecology and natural systems from them; they were my teachers.  And, I also learned more about art from them.  The rat from Public Lunch, was the first animal I worked with in this way.  Other species were later introduced into my studio-laboratory environment.

In the early 1970s, the field of ethology was very new, and there was very little written literature available.  One of the few authors I could find, who had written on animal behavior was the Austrian zoologist, Konrad Lorenz, and I read much of his work. I then also began to read all I could about organic gardening, ecology, and natural systems.

PFG: Your performances took place primarily in outdoor public spaces. They also can be read as interventions, interruptions of everyday life for viewers, such as the Zoo visitors in Public Lunch, or people in the streets during the Sitting Still series. In what ways is it different to perform in public spaces than to perform in a traditional white cube?

BOS: I was contrasting and juxtaposing elements, creating a sense of surprise, in order to awaken the audience, to facilitate their “seeing”.  I did both outdoor and indoor performances.  I created Sitting Still 1 (1970) soon after Portable Parks.  I found an area of water filled with garbage near where the 101 freeway interchange was being built.  In the center of the space was a large, overstuffed armchair.  I immediately saw myself seated in the chair, surrounded by the floating tires, tricycle, and other garbage. I went home, put on an evening gown, called my friend Robert Campbell, and asked him to photograph me and the scene in a particular way.  I came back to the site, waded into the water, and I sat in the chair, facing the “audience” –  the people sitting in the slow-moving cars, due to the freeway construction.

It was a very direct intervention, demonstrating how very simply, a seated human figure could transform the environment.  I took this idea and explored it further, and the Sitting Still Series evolved.  I brought an armchair with me to diverse neighborhoods and places around San Francisco, and sat in various environments: at 20th and Mission Street, in the Mission; at Church and Market, in the Lower Castro; in the Financial District at California and Montgomery; on the Bank of America Plaza – the original Occupy; and on the Golden Gate Bridge.  I also sat in various indoor and outdoor cages at the San Francisco Zoo.  The juxtapositions seemed very surreal at the time, because my simple gesture appeared to be unusual, even though it was so ordinary.  The Sitting Still Series culminated in Public Lunch.

I also created some indoor pieces, like Pig Sonata (1971), performed at the Museum of Conceptual Art. For that piece, I was dressed in an elegant, formal, long black gown. In front of the audience, I created a large pile of earth in the gallery space, by emptying numerous brown bags, covered the mound in raw vegetables, and made a trail of food, leading to a large wooden crate.  I then opened the crate, out of which came a large pig, who followed the trail of food to the soil mound with the greater amount of food, climbed onto it, and continued eating. The piece lasted until all the food was eaten.

Another more elaborate, indoor, environmental performance sculpture, was Living In The Forest: Demonstrations of Atkin Logic, Balance, Compromise, Devotion, Etc. Created in 1973 at the De Saisset Art Museum in Santa Clara, CA, Living In The Forest was a metaphor for life in all of its aspects, including birth, death, struggles for survival, compromise, living our daily lives, etc.  It was a very rich, complex, series of elements and actions that the public could enter. To describe briefly:  in one of the galleries, I created a living environment with plants and animals set up on the north, south, east, west axis corresponding to the larger world.  For six weeks, the museum was transformed: facing southwest, I planted six trees in a large, long box.  Each was in a different state of life; the trees that looked dead were dormant; the tree that looked the most alive had no roots.  It was a demonstration of illusion and reality.  Each tree was surrounded by a wire mesh enclosure that I would cut and open to the animals, each week, to become part of their environment.  In addition to me, the participating animals included, Pigme, a pig, hens and a rooster, rabbits including The Lady Doe, her mate, Buck, and their offspring, Mein Herr and Your Herress, two Ring-necked doves, and Guru Rat, the same rat who performed with me in Public Lunch. In the center of the environment was the center of the universe, facing east. Supported by nearby trees was a platform, which was my space, where I could lie down and rest, named, and written on its side, “layer of compromise.”  All of the animals were performers:  I performed human activities, like writing on the walls, including an alphabet, which described the diverse meanings and metaphors of the piece, as suggested in the title.  The other species performed according to their habits:  The rooster crowed and the hens laid eggs, making loud exclamations when laying their eggs and when the rooster mounted them.  The doves made a nest in one of the trees and took turns sitting on their eggs.  The buck chased his son to the kill, performing demonstrations of territorial struggles. The Lady Doe found the one safe place in the environment, under the tree that had no roots, in which to dig her warren and deliver her babies, which she fiercely protected.  When I realized this after the fourth week of the exhibition, I did a Change of Mind Piece, and stopped cutting the wire mesh around the trees, so the warren would be protected.  And, as another result, the last tree came into bloom.  The Guru Rat died of old age, and so on.

During the course of the exhibition, many school groups came to visit, and entered the environment.  After that experience, I was determined to create a healthier, indoor/outdoor environment for animals in a public space, where people could learn about natural systems, and appreciate the native intelligences of different species.  The Raw Egg Animal Theatre (TREAT) at The Farm, my next major work, evolved directly from Living In The Forest.

PFG: I would like to understand more, how from these performances, or, how you call them, “environmental performance sculptures,” you then began, The Farm.

BOS: It’s actually quite fascinating and powerful.  When I performed Sitting Still 1, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was literally facing my future:  the site that would become The Farm, and the northern frame of the Islais Creek Watershed in San Fransicso, that I am still deeply involved with today.

Regarding The Farm:  in 1974 the Borden’s Dairy was razed and became an open space covered in concrete. There were many other adjacent land fragments, next to and including the freeway interchange, which were owned by disparate entities.  The largest parcel of open space, the old Dairy site, was acquired by Knudsen Dairy.  Adjacent to it was a privately owned, one acre open space, and then just due south was a cluster of buildings, also privately owned.  Alongside the buildings was a strip of land, owned and managed by the State of California, and in the center of the freeway was land owned and managed by the City of San Francisco. It was a diverse series of real estate entities to deal with. All of these open spaces were juxtaposed with the freeway interchange, a technological form of nature, creating an interesting diptych between the mechanized and non-mechanized forms of nature. The site also was at the convergence of three hidden creeks, and in the confluence of four low-income, high-need neighborhoods, that had been severed by the building of the freeway interchange.  The idea was to bring everything together and make things whole.

In addition to wanting to develop a place where people could experience live animals, I saw this land configuration as a way to bring people from these diverse communities together, as well as plants and animals. It was a very important opportunity that eventually resulted in a new city park that was originally activated and inspired by The Farm.  At the time, I also felt the need to bring different kinds of artists together: diverse kinds of visual artists – painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, videographers – with performing artists – dancers, musicians, actors, acrobats, clowns, jugglers. During this time, there was a lot of prejudice and chauvinism among artists.  Around this time, I met a musician who was looking for rehearsal spaces, and I immediately saw that this open land and buildings could be transformed with indoor and outdoor spaces into a theater, farm, gardens, learning zones, etc.  Crossroads Community (The Farm), as I named it, was born!

Many different kinds of people came to The Farm, including many school groups.  I think they appreciated the surreal setting with the many Freeway Gardens, The Raw Egg Animal Theatre, the performances, and the community meetings and presentations.  I stayed with The Farm until the end of 1980, as I felt I had accomplished as much as I could.

PFG: A Living Library, is a natural evolution of your previous projects, or “life frames”, as you call them. It is about bringing awareness of ecological systems through art into a public place; it goes back to your performances and installations in the 1970s. Could you talk about A Living Library and its different forms?

BOS:  In 1981, I found myself in New York City, and began spending time in Bryant Park, in the heart of the City, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, adjacent to the main research branch of the New York Public Library, not too far from the United Nations.  This site inspired A Living Library.  At that time Bryant Park was known as “Needle Park”, because that’s where all the drug dealers went to sell drugs.  There were no other really “good” uses of the Park; the dealers simply filled the void.  I spent time in this seedy, yet elegant Park, feeling the place and its energy.  Suddenly, I had an epiphany and saw how to make it come alive for other uses.  I would bring the inside of the Library outside and create gardens of knowledge, based on the Dewey Decimal System, which fit perfectly around the peripheral gardens of the Park. In each garden of knowledge would be plants that related to the subject, visual and performed artworks, programs of lectures, demonstrations, and research institutes, and digital technologies that would bring out information from the Library and also enable this environment to be interconnected with others in diverse communities around the world.

It could become The Living Library!  But, then, I realized that might be insulting to its neighbor, the New York Public Library, so I changed the name to A Living Library, meaning another library.  Then I realized, the initials spelled A.L.L., the embodiment of what I was hoping to achieve. I was thrilled!

I worked very diligently to realize A Living Library in Bryant Park, but, ultimately this did not happen, although many of my ideas were later incorporated into its eventual renewal, such as the interactive community programs, and the extremely successful and lucrative, international fashion shows during Fashion Week.

It took me some time to figure out how to clearly articulate what I was envisioning, because it was so complex, layered, and new to the vernacular of landscape architecture. I knew that I was working on something really exciting and relevant, so, I continued to develop the idea of a programmed landscape, which at the time, was very innovative and unusual.  I began to study landscapes from around the world and found many precedents for what I was envisioning, from Asia – in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian Gardens – and from the West – in Medieval Gardens, 17th Century French formal gardens, Renaissance Gardens, and others.

I was inspired to actualize this work, so, I went back to school to become a landscape architect, as a way to hone my skills, and be taken more seriously by the establishment that controlled public spaces. I was interested in creating and transforming public places as interactive parks and gardens, integrated with local community programs, interdisciplinary, hands-on curricula, that provided opportunities for learning about natural systems, ecology, local resources, and multicultural diversity.

I made many place-based, Living Library plans for diverse sites and situations over the years, including, a 1995-96, San Francisco Civic Center Living Library Conceptual Master Plan, for another underused, derelict, and neglected Beaux Arts Park.  The idea here, was to create a 21st Century heart of the city, by outwardly reflecting and showcasing what is occurring in the surrounding civic buildings in the Plaza, and who San Franciscans are, as an international, multicultural community.  The Mayor at the time, Willie Brown, was not interested in this opportunity, although many others were, including many other elected officials, the Board of Education, Sister City groups and consulates, funders, and many others.

Just after this, I found myself at James Denman Middle School, where the principal had heard about A Living Library, and asked me to begin one there. That began the OMI/Excelsior Living Library & Think Park that linked a high school, middle school, and child development center on a contiguous nine acre site. I developed a master plan with the three-school community, and as a pilot, we created a Garden between the Middle School and CDC, and along the streets, digging up concrete to create a California Native Learning Zone Streetscape Transformation & ArtWalk.  Later, other asphalt areas were dug up and transformed into diverse learning zones.  The processes involved students and the local community in research, planning, design, implementation, use, maintenance, management, and communications of their OMI/Excelsior Branch Living Library & Think Park. It is still underway today.

A Living Library is a planetary genre, developing locally and globally. Each resulting Branch Living Library & Think Park incorporates local resources – human, ecological, economic, historic, technological, aesthetic – seen through the lens of time – past, present, future.  In addition to linking local resources and communities, a goal is to interconnect Branch Living Library & Think Parks in diverse communities, through sculptural, green-powered digital gateways, so we can share diversities and commonalities of cultures and ecologies, near and far.

A Living Library is a life work, and a life’s work. In addition to transforming sterile, barren environments, we are improving education, contributing to the public realm, training and creating new green jobs, and performing community and economic development in locales where A.L.L. is established.

For more information, see A Living Library blog and website:

* Pierre-François Galpin is a CCA Curatorial Studies MA Candidate and former ICI Exhibitions Intern

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FRESH MILK XIII was a project produced by the art space FRESH MILK which included a screening by damali abrams, a screening of Project 35 Volume 2, and a presentation of the new Fresh Milk Virtual Map of Caribbean Art Spaces. The following review was published with permission by FRESH MILK. To read the original post, please continue here.

The Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc. continues to provide a space for contemporary artists to develop projects and exchange ideas in a creative and engaging environment, as evidenced by the most recent public event Fresh Milk XIII, which was held at the Fresh Milk site on October 24th 2013.

Below, art historian and writer Jessica Taylor reviews Fresh Milk’s last event, FRESH MILK XIII, which took place October 24, 2013 at The Milking Parlour Studio.

Photograph by Mark King

While outlining a number of projects that have been ongoing at Fresh Milk, the event included a screening of a full-length documentary made by resident-artist damali abrams. damali, a New York-based Guyanese performance artist, showcased a documentary that she had produced during her joint residency at Fresh Milk and Groundation Grenada for the month of October 2013 as part of The Fresh Performance Project. The documentary featured footage from interviews that she had conducted with six Caribbean-based and six New York-based performance artists over a six-month period prior to beginning her on-site residency.

Entitled Fresh Performance: Contemporary Performance Art in New York City and the Caribbean, damali’s documentary is less about the specific performance works of the twelve artists that she interviewed but is instead more about the artists’ conceptions of performance art as a practice within the context of their work. In the first few minutes of the film we are introduced to differing considerations of what performance art is from the twelve artists, which for the viewer emphasizes the interpretive nature of performance art and its malleability as an art form. damali has paired the video interviews with still images of the live performances of each artist, which creates an intriguing juxtaposition of interview as performance, and performance as documentary. The role of documentation in performance art is fairly ambiguous given that some artists have denied any documentation of their work (claiming that it shall not exist outside of the moment of its performance) and others rely on documentation to preserve their performance (normally for exhibition purposes). damali complicates this ambiguity even further by turning an act of documentation into a performance itself. For her, the documentary is as much a performance as the works that we see in the still images shown in the documentary. The result of this is that as viewers, we are experiencing the binary of watching a live performance art piece by one artist in which she interviews other artists about their practice and calls on them to recollect past performances. This play with documentation and temporality demonstrates that performance can be something direct but not necessarily something that is easily understood by the public. Despite the drastic differences amongst the various pieces discussed, several common threads surfaced throughout the interviews, such as the importance of the audience, the role of spontaneity and interaction, and an appreciation of the unpredictable nature of performance art. This overarching notion of the role of the public sparks many questions for me. Can we have cross-cultural notions of performance art? Does a Barbadian audience approach damali’s work differently than a New York audience? Given that all of the artists interviewed deal with issues of identity, how do their audiences inform and interpret these issues based on their geographical location? Of course these questions remain unanswered, but I believe that is exactly what damali is trying to show us. Ultimately, damali is offering these artists a chance to both explore and explain what performance art means to them, while forcing her audience to ask themselves the same questions. Her exploration of the medium through the words of these twelve artists initiates a much-needed discussion of the role that performance art has to play in the Caribbean, and simultaneously links it to performance art in New York. The connections that damali is making between the Caribbean and New York through the dialogue that she maintains with the twelve artists are unique, given that performance art is practiced by such a small number of Caribbean artists. Perhaps the most telling sign of this was not only in the words of the Caribbean artists on the screen, but even more so in the responses given by the audience members attending Fresh Event XIII. After the screening damali was met with questions from young art students who had either never heard of performance art or had never considered it in great detail, but who will now hopefully perpetuate this important discussion. In addition to damali’s documentary, there was also a screening of Project 35: Volume 2, which is a travelling exhibition produced by Independent Curators International (ICI) and included a piece by Bahamian artist Heino Schmid, selected by Trinidadian artist and curator Christopher Cozier. Subsequently the director of Fresh Milk, Annalee Davis, took to the floor to present to the audience a series of other projects that had been in the works at Fresh Milk over the past few months. The first of these was the Fresh Milk Artboard, which was erected at the bottom of the road leading to the Fresh Milk site as a new public gallery from which the work of contemporary artists will be showcased. The first work to be displayed on the Artboard was designed by Barbadian artist Evan Avery, who had also previously designed a graphic work to be installed in the front window of Casa Tomada’s ‘A Casa Recebe’ in Brazil, which exhibits the work of both local and international artists. The relationship between Fresh Milk and Casa Tomada is just one example of the cross-cultural exchange that Fresh Milk is encouraging and that we are beginning to see more and more in the arts of the region and further afield. In light of this, Annalee also presented the Fresh Milk Virtual Map of Caribbean Art Spaces. This resource is an online map indicating the existing art spaces across the region, which also includes links to the websites of these spaces. Working to circulate information regarding arts in the Caribbean, this map not only offers a regional view of how these spaces have manifested themselves across the Caribbean but will hopefully help to facilitate greater connectedness between these institutions. Finally, Annalee directed the audience’s attention to the addition of new publications to the Colleen Lewis Reading Room, located on the Fresh Milk site. Fresh Milk XIII, which marked the platform’s final public event for 2013, fittingly brought together several of the elements integral to Fresh Milk’s mission; regional and international collaboration, experiment and exchange, knowledge of the contemporary arts, and increased visibility of Caribbean art all came into play. Moving forward, it is imperative to find the best way to activate these resources that Fresh Milk has made available, and continue to nurture the relationships built with artists such as damali and institutions such as ICI. In this way Fresh Milk will continue to evolve not only as an organization, but as an entity facilitating change by inspiring new ways of thinking, reaching new audiences and stimulating the public’s sensibility as we move towards intellectual and creative growth. About Jessica Taylor: Jessica Taylor recently graduated from McGill University with an undergraduate degree in Art History and Philosophy and hopes to begin a graduate degree in Curatorial Studies in 2014. Her focus is contemporary Caribbean art.

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Reviews in Vogue, Dazed, The Art Newspaper and Fantastic Man

Posted on October 17, 2014

Four new reviews this month take on Rebels Rebel and consider it’s ever pressing siginificance in shaping art history and activism:

Fantastic Man
Review by Michael Bullock

Interview by Ashleigh Kane

Review by Alex Frank

The Art Newspaper
Review by Anny Shaw

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Highlights from Performing, Re-enacting and Reacting

Posted on April 24, 2015

NYU Windows Martha Wilson: Exhibition Windows at NYU

Pratt installation Martha Wilson: Exhibition at Pratt

longo Robert Longo

Pratt Performing, Re-enacting, Reacting at Pratt

alaina claire feldman alaina claire feldman alaina claire feldman Alaina Claire Feldman, Martha Wilson, Nicolas Dumit Estevez

Alaina martha Nicolas Robert Tavia Alaina Claire Feldman, Martha Wilson, Nicolas Dumit Estevez, Robert Longo, Tavia Nyong’o


Exhibition Interview for Radio Adelaide

Posted on March 24, 2017

Gillian Brown, Curator at The Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art at University of South Australia, was interviewed for Radio Adelaide to discuss The Ocean After Nature and Countecurrents, both exhibitions currently on view at the museum. Countercurrents is a localized response to The Ocean After Nature in the form of an exhibition. Through painting, video, sculpture, installation and photography, eight artists with ties to the Adelaide region tease apart the complex history linked to the Pacific that both isolate us from – and connect us to – the rest of the world. Presented for the 2017 Adelaide Festival, Countercurrents features works by: Daniel Boyd; Baden Pailthorpe; Alex Seton; Fiona Tan; Angela Tiatia; James Tylor; and Ken + Julia Yonetani.

Original posting here.

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Interview with Calvin Phelps

Posted on September 25, 2017

PSA-MS resident artists Keith Walsh, Samwell Freeman, and Mackenzie Hoffman in front of the McComb Railroad Depot

do it Pike County is organized by the Pike School of Art – Mississippi and the very first presentation of an ICI exhibition in the state of Mississippi. Pike School of Art – Mississippi (PSA-MS) is a space for interdisciplinary creative experimentation where artists and writers with diverse backgrounds and proficiencies come together and interact in a rural setting in America’s Deep South. ICI spoke with Calvin Phelps, Director of PSA-MS to learn more about their plans for this fall.

Do it is fully realized when artist instructions are interpreted, enacted and presented to the public. Who will be enacting and interpreting your selection of instructions for do it Pike County?

We are especially proud that, even in our rural area, our iteration of do it will have participation from a wide demographic swath. PSA-MS has partnered with St. Andrew’s Mission, Jubilee Performing Arts Center (JPAC), Pike County Chamber of Commerce, and the McComb Public Library to ensure the broadest range of participation possible. We expect that people of all ages will participate throughout the run of the exhibition. At the St. Andrew’s Mission Activity Center, for example, mostly adults will interpret instructions, while at JPAC, a K-12 school, do it instructions will be integrated into their art and literary curriculum. There will be several workshops at the public library and a few full days of art making at Percy Quin State Park open to everyone. Completed works will be exhibited at the Chamber, JPAC and the library.

PSA-MS encourages the production of art focusing on the Deep South, including Mississippi’s and Louisiana’s complex histories of conflict and adjustment between different ideologies. Keeping this in mind, how was the selection of do it instructions made?

As a nomadic organization — within southwest Mississippi — we have kept in mind the different spaces to be used for the exhibition as well as the people who use those spaces. The public library, a state park, a performing arts school and a community center patronized mostly by senior citizens: each has a constituency, some of whom might not ever visit — or even be aware of — the others.

One goal of do it is to layer these constituencies and integrate them with each other over the course of the exhibition, in turn creating bonds lasting far into the future. Seniors will visit the state park and eighth-grade actors and musicians will engage with seniors. Our purpose is to nurture participation not only between the public and individual do it instructions but among the observers and participants themselves, across age, racial and sociopolitical divides.

Specifically, some do it instructions were chosen because of their ease of execution while still being conceptually rigorous – Yoko Ono’s Wish Piece and Louise Bourgeois’ Instruction, for instance. Others were selected because of their ability to address the political – Cao Fei ‘s Shoot It and Simone Forti’s “Think about climate change…” instructions are both good examples. I love how Simryn Gill’s instruction asks you to “approach a stranger who you perceive to be somehow different to yourself” and I really hope participants use this work to think deeply about their own differences.

do it Pike County is a P.S. Satellite of Prospect New Orleans’ Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp taking place in nearby New Orleans. While do it Pike County is a decentralized project, occurring at many sites across the county, how will the relationship with Prospect.4 impact the exhibition?

Our iteration of do it will reflect the distinctive culture and geography of our part of the nation. America’s Deep South attracts visitors from around the world, but most often to larger cities, including New Orleans, Memphis and Atlanta. Our proximity to New Orleans — around two hours by car or Amtrak’s City of New Orleans — will give Prospect attendees an opportunity to experience a less-visited part of the south in a short period of time, simultaneously broadening the size and demographic scope of those interpreting the do it instructions. Also, our status as a satellite of Prospect helped us receive a Visit Mississippi tourism grant from the Mississippi Development Authority that we are using to specifically target and attract Prospect visitors.

Conversely, because PSA-MS offers a residency program, we are inviting resident artists who come to Mississippi during our presentation of do it to participate in the exhibition. And of course, while they are here, we are taking them to New Orleans so they get a chance to experience Prospect.4.

For more information about exhibition related programming, please visit http://www.psa-ms.org/do-it

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Publishing Against the Grain in Art Agenda

Posted on January 20, 2018

art agenda

Sean O’Toole a journalist, critic, and editor living in Cape Town reviews Publishing Against the Grain for the January 2018 edition of Art Agenda: “The broad reach of “Publishing Against the Grain,” which aggregates little magazines from Brazil, Canada, Iran, Peru, Sri Lanka, and Uganda with varying degrees of affinity to the art world, invites relational comparison. My summary outtake: materiality still matters to independent publishers, whatever their location, as does the idea of a curious reader. The exhibition takes shape around a selection of reading material from nineteen publishers, including artist-book publisher Raking Leaves (Sri Lanka) and web platform Our Literal Speed (United States), some of who also nominated additional publications for display. It is a familiar form of curatorship by fiat, but nonetheless yields a material richness that is laid out on old school desks for browsing and accessible through wall-mounted electronic devices. The nominations obviously function as declarations of affinity, but just as often they map kinship and influence. ” To read the full review, continue here.

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Interview with Sven Christian

Posted on February 2, 2018

In order to follow up on and assess the first iteration of Publishing Against the Grain, and to get more insight into how the project fit into the museum’s burgeoning plan and new mission, ICI’s Alaina Claire Feldman, Becky Nahom and Sven Christian (Adriane Iann Assistant Curator of Books and Works on Paper at Zeitz MOCAA) followed up by email to discuss the presentation on view at the museum from November 18, 2017 to January 29, 2018. Zeitz Ilze Wolff (Pumflet Editor) at the Publishing Against the Grain opening, Zeitz MOCAA, 2017. Photo courtesy of ICI and Zeitz MOCAA. ICI: While the museum will present an extensive collection of works from throughout the continent and abroad, how do you see international engagement through traveling exhibitions fitting into Zeitz MOCAA’s future? Sven Christian (SC): International engagement through traveling exhibitions will play an important role in the realization of Zeitz MOCAA’s mission to develop intercultural understanding. Another complimentary function of traveling exhibitions will be to help locate the collection within a global context, and to challenge the misconception that art from Africa is a homogenous, isolated entity. On a local level, traveling exhibitions are a great way for us to engage with parallel histories. They provide exposure to new material and offer alternate tools and approaches to problems similar to our own. Publishing Against the Grain was our first collaboration with Independent Curators International (ICI). It was also the first traveling exhibition to be held at Zeitz MOCAA. The importance of hosting traveling exhibitions like this was made evident through many of the interactions that we had with visitors over the course of the exhibition, and through the supplementary panel discussions that were held. Our attendance increased with each iteration and the large number of people who returned indicate that there is a demand for the types of discussions that the exhibition prompted. ICI: Publishing Against the Grain made its debut at the museum this fall. What about this exhibition did you and museum visitors find particularly interesting, and how can such publishing projects which disseminate alternative, progressive, and autonomous positions appeal to a Cape Town audience right now? SC: It was the scope of the exhibition and the prospect of new material that was most appealing. There were over twenty projects included in this exhibition, drawn from regions as far reaching as Peru, Uganda, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and the United States. All of the core initiatives are still active today while some of their nominations were produced during the 70s, and now exist as records. Because each of these initiatives are specific to a particular time and place, we tend to think about them as isolated entities. However, having them all together in one space revealed many of their similarities. It also provided a great opportunity for us to understand the various contexts that gave birth to them, and to reinterpret these concerns and methodologies. Over the past few years, the need for alternate spaces within South Africa has become increasingly apparent. This is not to say that such initiatives are by any means new—South Africa has a rich history of independent publishing—but that whenever a given framework is no longer able to support the needs of the voices it lays claim to, it is the unknown potential of new material that has the capacity to offer unseen solutions. In addition, the exhibition highlighted the amount of international visitors to the museum — especially during the December-January period, when there is an influx of tourists in Cape Town. Many of these visitors were delighted to find publications on exhibition from their own country that they did not know existed. Being able to discover something in South Africa that was produced in your own backyard is something that I think will be important for the museum going forward, as traveling exhibitions like Publishing Against the Grain help make visible the various undercurrents that both bind and separate us. ICI: We conceived of this exhibition, as part of the curatorial framework, to generate new content and propositions at every venue. We wanted discourse to adapt to a site and the project’s changing contexts. Similarly, this exhibition continues to grow and accumulate as it travels, when new publications are added at every museum. We wanted to continue to open up a platform for discourse by inviting the curators we work with to add materials they have found influential to their particular scene. Can you explain how you framed and expanded Publishing Against the Grain for a Cape Town context? SC: The two publications I invited to take part in the traveling exhibition were Adjective and Pumflet. Adjective is an arts publication that bridges the divide between critical essay writing, poetry, and the visual arts in South Africa. Pumflet, on the other hand, is a site-specific, collaborative periodical that began as a conversation between architect Ilze Wolff and artist Kemang wa-Lehulere. As a collective they explore the relationship between the built environment and the social imagination. Like many of the initial projects drawn from ICI’s international network, these publications were produced through collaborative, DIY means. They function as platforms for further research and the cross-pollination of ideas. This was something that we wanted to develop further, and became the framework for a series of supplementary panel discussions titled Alternate Voices. Alternate Voices provided visitors with a first-hand account into the origins, thought processes, and concerns behind some of the publications on exhibition. It also presented a platform for these ideas to be expanded upon within the context of artistic and critical production in South Africa. For each iteration we invited one of the core publications on exhibition to speak with one or two local practitioners. Due to their relevance—and because their concerns were common to many of the publications on exhibition—the four that we approached were Our Literal Speed (United States), Pages (Iran and the Netherlands), Makzhin (Lebanon and the United States), and Exhausted Geographies (Pakistan). The thematic focus of each panel was drawn directly from the ideas expressed in each of these publications. For the first iteration local artists Mitchell Messina (Adjective) and Emily Robertson spoke with Our Literal Speed founders Matthew Jesse Jackson and John Spelman about their own practices and the relationship between art, capital, and popular culture. For the second, Tazneem Wentzel (Burning Museum) and Ashley Walters spoke with Babak Affrassiabi (Pages) about whether or not art could rely on the archive as a historical premise. Inspired by Makhzin’s open call for their upcoming issue ‘Dictationship’, the third iteration with Palesa Motsumi (Sematsatsa Library), Nick Mulgrew (Prufrock and uHlanga), and Mirene Arsanios (Makhzin) focused on the material conditions that dictate the way we write ourselves into the world. The fourth iteration was a conversation between Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani (Exhausted Geographies), who spoke with Ilze Wolff (Pumflet) about the long-lasting effect of the colonial blueprint in the development of former British colonies, Karachi and Cape Town. I hope our discussions will be useful to future audiences as it offers fresh insight into the motivations that underpin some of the projects in the exhibition. I think our conversations also provided an interesting perspective into how these projects were interpreted by Cape Town audiences, and will give some background into the two publications invited by Zeitz MOCAA — Adjective and Pumflet which I’m very excited to see grow wings and continue on the tour.

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Zeitz MoCAA Panel Discussion – Alternate Voices: Pages

Posted on February 16, 2018

On December 16, 2017, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) hosted a panel discussion titled Alternate Voices: Pages which included Babak Affrassiabi, Tazneem Wentzel, Ashley Walters and Sven Christian (curator of Zeitz MoCAA) and was aimed at providing visitors with a first-hand account into the origins, thought processes, and concerns behind some of the key contributions to the exhibition, in this case the publication Pages, providing a platform for these ideas to be expanded upon within the context of artistic and critical production in South Africa. The following is a transcript of the public program:



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Axis Mundo Catalogue wins The American Association of Art Museum Curators’ Award for Excellence

Posted on May 7, 2018

Axis Mundo Catalogue

The Axis Mundo exhibition catalogue, co-published by USC-ONE Gay and Lesbian National Archives and Prestel, has won this year’s American Association of Art Museum Curators’ Award for Excellence for an Outstanding Printed Publication for its groundbreaking new scholarship! The Awards are the only of their kind by which curators honor their own. A list of all the awardees and more information on the annual prize can be found here.

Copies of the catalogue may be purchased here.

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O Regional Interviews Apichatpong Weerasethakul in São João da Madeira

Posted on June 29, 2018

Joana Gomes Costa has interviewed Apichatpong Weerasethskul on occasion of Serenity of Madness at Núcleo de Arte da Oliva for the journal O Regional. To read the full article [in Portuguese] please continue here.

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Gridthiya Gaweewong Commissions new Apichatpong Weerasethakul project for the Gwangju Biennale

Posted on July 6, 2018

Gridthiya Gaweewong, curator of Serenity of Madness, will commission a new site-specific installation by Apichatpong Weerasethakul for the 12th Gwangju Biennale where she is a guest curator. For this Gwangju Biennale, Apichatpong Weerasethakul will share his outlook on the world within the historic framework of Gwangju, creating a new work within an abandoned hospital.

The theme of the biennial, “Imagined Borders” is a guiding concept that responds to the current times of change and uncertainty by recognizing the limits of grand narratives, singular authorship and the necessity to return to the complexities of multiple voices and perspectives. Referencing both the inaugural 1995 edition of the Gwangju Biennale titled Beyond the Borders and Benedict Anderson’s notion of citizenship and national identity, the biennial aims to question the notion of belonging and community within today’s political and planetary crises, quite markedly changed from the early days of the biennial where globalization aimed to dissolve borders.

For more information on the bienniale and the new commission, please continue here.

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