In April 2007, the Berlin-based English artist Tacita Dean filmed Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS . . . (six performances, six films), a series of 16-mm portraits of the legendary choreographer performing to John Cage’s 4'33". In November 2008, Dean worked with Cunningham again to film the making of one of his Events—this one in the craneway of a former Ford Motor factory in Richmond, California. Cunningham passed away in July. The public premiere of Dean’s Craneway Event will be presented November 5–7 by Performa and Danspace Project at Saint Mark’s Church in New York.
SOME TIME AFTER we worked together on Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS, Merce asked me to collaborate with him on an Event. Through CalArts, Merce and Trevor Carlson, the executive director of his company, had found this huge space in Richmond—a former Ford factory.
I didn’t want to film the performance but the rehearsal. I couldn’t even stay for the actual Event. I filmed for four days—the first day it was raining and Merce just looked at the space. The next three days, the dancers came. There were pelicans everywhere, and the craneway was surrounded by glass. It was stunning light. Coincidentally, we filmed November 3–6 last year, exactly the same days that the work is premiering at Performa this year. It’s taken me exactly a year to do it. Obama was elected on the first day in the film, but I resisted putting in any reference to that.
Merce was open to whatever I chose to do. My interest was more in Merce at that point than it was in the dancers—my history with old men! I wanted to film him, which is why I chose to film the rehearsal because during the performance he recedes a bit. At the end of the film, the dancers do a run-through of everything they’ve been working on, and only then does Merce fall asleep. He was totally present and active throughout. The company kept him active. It was a shock when he died. I really believed he would go on for another few years.
There is also no music in the rehearsal. I liked the idea of the dance happening in silence. The music he uses is usually created separately from the choreography, so the dancers dance by counting. I also liked it that the dancers weren’t in costume but are wearing their own clothes. I asked them to wear the same clothes every day, because I thought I was going to cut the film as one day, which is how I’ve done things in the past. But in the end, the light was so different that I actually made it three autonomous days, which accounts for the length: It’s 1 hour 48 minutes.
I’ve been working on it for months. It was a huge and daunting project, as I had seventeen hours of footage. With film, every camera magazine is only ten minutes, and then you have to change it, so there are hundreds of shots and no continuum. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I edited it alone on my film-cutting table using magnetic tape for the sound, which means you have to continually mark everything to keep the film in sync. The sound and image are separate, and the moment you lose sync it’s a nightmare: It’s just the sound of footsteps, which could be from anywhere in the film so it’s nearly impossible to find sync again.
Merce told me I didn’t have to be faithful to the chronology of the dance, which was very liberating but, in the end, I was quite faithful. The Event had three stages on which the dancers dance simultaneously, so as a viewer you never have a composite view, which is the same in my film: no single perspective. The actual Event is always broken up.
There is not a single shot in this film that does not have movement because I needed to keep the film active as it is so long. I had rolls and rolls of the most beautiful footage of the sun setting on the walls and floor, but in the end I decided not to use it. For a cinematic audience, it’s probably uncomfortable as there’s little narrative drive, but considering the longueur of some of my other films, for an art audience this one is actually quite easygoing.
The dancers all knew what they were going to be dancing before they arrived. The rehearsal was about siting the choreography in the space. Merce tuned it, changing the dancers’ positions and the way they faced. To some extent, choreography is opaque to a nondancer, but what I liked is that Merce seemed to be working pictorially.
There are two places in this film where I use jump cuts because I wanted to include a succession of moments, once on Merce and once on the dancers. On the second day, he gets very active. He starts scrutinizing their transitions, saying things like, “Take her off now. Put her down now!” Then the camera cuts between the dancers, as I didn’t want to break the tension. On those occasions, I break my stylistic norm. I don’t often pan in my films. Pans annoy me. I don’t mind if they are going somewhere. But I can’t stand the pan for no reason, just taking in the whole scene. I like things to happen within the frame; I prefer to wait for it. It’s an aesthetic thing.
Left: Cover of Dennis Oppenheim, Public Projects, 2009. Right: Dennis Oppenheim, Garden of Evidence, 2008, water-jet-cut aluminum sheet, prefinished diamond-plate aluminum sheets, acrylic, translucent fiberglass, fiberglass grating, galvanized bar grating, galvanized steel, perforated metal, pigmented aqua resin cast benches, dimensions variable. Installation view, Ace Gallery, Los Angeles.
A pioneer of Earthworks in the late 1960s, Dennis Oppenheim has pursued an adventurous career in sculpture and installation, film and video, and body and performance art, but he never stopped making outdoor work. For the past ten years, Oppenheim has concentrated almost exclusively on public art, which is documented in a new book published by Charta this month.
SOME PEOPLE WOULD SAY the age of experimentation in art has ended, but if it has, it’s also created an opening for a new camaraderie of artists working in architecture and public space, making work with people in mind. Functionality and design—once problematic for fine artists—are now where exciting things are happening. It’s a natural progression, but there’s still some resistance. I have fond memories of operating in a studio as a pure scientist, with absolutely no agenda other than to brainstorm art theory and develop new methods. I miss that. My public art does demand similar responses on my behalf to make it successful, but not at the level of penetration that studio work offers: what art can, should, and can’t be—all these heavy questions.
Public work has to be different; it has to be more like architecture. Public art also has to be fairly durable, and artists have to deal with certain characteristics, such as the democratic way the art is selected. That was never true with body art and Land art, which were often fragile, distributed randomly, and created without an audience. For me, venturing onto this new terrain, I’m often on unsteady ground.
Another reason I’m doing public art is to make a distinction between permanent work and the art I come from, which is partly installation art or ephemeral work. That period wore down, and I intentionally moved to the other extreme. Public art is still a frontier, like Alaska.
Working in public art has made me interested in architecture. Young architects, and those not so young, are doing extraordinary work in the built environment, and somehow they are getting away with it. Aaron Betsky, who directed the 2008 Venice Biennale of Architecture, said all the entries were temporary installations—no one will build a building. If you think about it, how else could it be? But that brings to mind installation art, which occurred more in the ’70s. Architects are looking very much like installation artists from thirty years ago. It’s also interesting how architects working with ephemerality, like those in the biennale, are growing in number, and they’re operating with many different kinds of social attitudes. I have a less social attitude than most of them.
Public art, in many cases, is not as structurally and theoretically advanced as contemporary architecture. Vito Acconci says that architects are more interesting to him than artists. There are sculptors out there who are pushing things, people like Thomas Hirschhorn, with all the masking tape—it’s perverse and wonderful. But there are probably more outrageous architects. Even as they take their cues from artists, architects don’t always need us.
Many of my commissions, such as Jump and Twist, 1999, Wave Forms, 2007, and Flying Gardens, 2005, have an opportunity to integrate closely to the site, which is what panels and municipalities want. In New York City, you can’t really do permanent work. That’s why funding agencies like the Public Art Fund sponsor temporary pieces, but work like that is a hybrid. Real public art is like architecture because it will be there for a while.
Public-art commissions, though, generally have a 20 percent success rate, and projects that get rejected are often shelved because they are site-specific. But you can still use them, present them, and keep them alive by talking about them—it depends on how good they are. Sometimes the best work is not accepted because it’s too radical or ambitious—that’s a paradox of public art. In the past, I’ve sometimes taken elements from a commission and shown them in a gallery—like I did with Garden of Evidence, 2008, a work for Scottsdale, Arizona—before installing them in a site. Funding for an exhibition is sometimes hard to get, so use your public-art commission to construct the work and then show it momentarily in a gallery. Cities don’t always like that.
Device to Root Out Evil, 1997, appears on the cover of the new book, which is partly a decision to retain a singular image because the disparity in my work makes it hard to rest on anything particular. When there is an opportunity to create a signature image, I do, and Device has been on the cover of a few books. But the work has since become discomforting. I donated one of three versions to Stanford University, where I went to graduate school, but after a controversy they gave it back. This upside-down church has been chased around the continent for several years. After Vancouver took it down, it moved to an obscure site in Calgary.
What people don’t realize is how acceptance of permanent work takes time. People have grown to love Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, 1994–98, in Gateshead, in the northeast of England. I haven’t yet heard that about my work.
Dennis Oppenheim, Multi-helix Tower, 2007, steel, acrylic, signal light, 45 x 10 x 10'. Installation view, Los Angeles Police Department Harbor Station, San Pedro, California.
Dennis Oppenheim, Device to Root Out Evil, 1997, galvanized structural steel, anodized perforated aluminum, transparent red Venetian glass, concrete foundations, 9 x 15 x 20'. Installation view, Venice Biennale. Photo: Edward Smith.
Dennis Oppenheim, Battle Drums, 2009, water-jet-cut Cor-Ten steel, rotating motor, timer, lights, 8' 6“ x 8' 6”. Installation view, Osnabrück, Germany. Photo: Christian Grovermann.
Dennis Oppenheim, Safety Cones, 2007, blaze-orange cast fiberglass. 18 x 9 x 9' each. Installation view, Nam June Paik Art Center, Seoul.
Dennis Oppenheim, Reconstructed
Dwelling, 2007, shingles, glass windows, steel doors, metal awning, 30 x 60 x 6'. Installation view, Tyvola Road Station, Charlotte Transit System.
Dennis Oppenheim, Splash Buildings, 2009, galvanized steel, acrylic, globes, cast fiberglass, fasteners, dimensions variable. Installation view, Scolacium Park, Catanzaro, Italy.
Dennis Oppenheim, Wave Forms, 2007, rolled aluminum, aluminum mesh, dimensions variable. Installation view, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Dennis Oppenheim, Jump and Twist, 1999, diamond-plate aluminum, enamel aluminum sheets, steel, acrylic, 40 x 300 x 300’. Installation view, Micro Systems Building, University of Freiburg, Germany. Photo: Guido Kirsch.
In her new book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, Julia Bryan-Wilson, the director of the Ph.D. program in visual studies at the University of California, Irvine, examines artistic labor in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. The book was published this month by the University of California Press and will have a release party at Printed Matter on November 7.
THE MORE INTERESTED I became in the legacies of the Art Workers’ Coalition and the New York Art Strike, the more I became concerned with how artistic labor registers––or doesn’t––within a wider field. It was both inspiring and somewhat vexing to consider how artists and critics attempted to organize as workers and label themselves as such, particularly during the Vietnam War, when debates about the value of artistic production were raging within culture and within protest politics. How does art work? This question challenged me and pushed the project forward.
In my preliminary writings on this subject, I investigated how the eruption of antiwar protests within New York museums was central to institutional critique in the United States. That assertion is still very much alive in Art Workers and informs much of the book. But I also ask larger questions about the flexibility of ideas of artistic labor at this time and how such labor was mobilized or altered by specific artists and groups.
A single book can’t say everything about this moment, and mine certainly does not aim to be comprehensive. People around the globe were thinking about artistic labor, including Fred Lonidier in California and the Rosario Group in Argentina, to name just two. Yet I began to concentrate on influential figures (artists Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, and Robert Morris and writer Lucy Lippard) to think through how their work and their participation in movements like the AWC might tell a new story about the political and artistic milieu of the era around the Vietnam War—which also, crucially, saw the flowering of Minimalism and Conceptualism.
Early on, I received some useful feedback from a reader who asked whether it might be a contradiction to organize the book as a series of case studies of canonical figures, since one somewhat contested aspect of this collective organizing sought to break down such hierarchies. While the book does include more marginal players, I intentionally focus on underexplored aspects of well-known art workers to expand our traditional understanding of this period and to consider the ways in which histories themselves are written.
In addition, I wanted to retain and amplify the contradictions, because in fact the attempt to redefine artists as workers circa 1969 was shot through with ambivalence, uncertainty, and paradox. For instance, a few of the figures I research viewed their activism and their art as constituting completely separate practices. Then there are others, like Lippard, who merged their political work with their art-world involvements. Lippard moved into an advocacy role as a feminist critic through her sense of herself as an art worker because she was interested in reevaluating women’s labor. And from the start, feminist imperatives motivated my project; feminism helped me theorize the uneven valuation of different kinds of work and how different kinds of workers—across lines of gender, race, and class—are compensated.
The word practice in my title is vital; the phrase radical practice is a direct citation of Herbert Marcuse. He, of course, was a major intellectual player in that time, and his theories informed many of these art workers. I know practice has become slightly overused, but it is a very period-specific term. It also indicates that artists and writers were rehearsing or refining various modes of aesthetics and politics.
It’s a brief time span that I’m looking at––just a handful of years. But the incredible amount of organizational energy that was generated––especially how artists came together to effect change within the museum system––is still relevant. And it has been interesting to witness the activities of recently formed groups like Working Artists and the Greater Economy and the “State of the Arts” poster project about contemporary artists’ political and occupational power—or lack thereof. Much has shifted in the intervening decades, but some of the issues that obsessed the art workers of the late 1960s (then, as now, a time of war and economic upheaval) remain pertinent today.
Views of “Karla Black,” 2009, Modern Art Oxford.
The Glasgow-based artist Karla Black is known for her sprawling floor-based and hanging sculptures that comprise diverse materials such as plaster, Vaseline, acrylic paint, lipstick, nail polish, and body lotion. Her largest UK solo show to date is on view at Modern Art Oxford through November 29.
WHEN I’M NEARLY FINISHED making a work, I ask myself, “If this was a painting, would it be a good painting?” If I decide that the answer is yes, then I’m done. I use impermanent and raw materials like paper, polythene, plaster powder, and cosmetic products in my sculptures not because they easily change and decay but because I want the energy, life, and movement that they give. I would much rather have the sculptures stay exactly as they are the moment I finish making them. But I also know that if my first priority were to preserve the work forever, or for as long as possible, then I’d use stone, metal, or wood. But those materials don’t have the qualities I want. It’s a double bind.
My work needs to occupy the kind of large rooms that Modern Art Oxford has to offer, and it needs to enter into the institutional realm in order to become what it really is. The work is both a protest and a compromise at the same time. While it tries to dismantle the demands of being permanent, transferable, and stable, as required by most art institutions, it also physically and sculpturally negotiates within those conditions and reaches compromises that allow it to exist in those places.
I prioritize material experience over language as a way of learning and understanding. The physical human experience that comes from the inside out precedes language and is most absorbent for us, most unself-conscious, when we are fully in it and therefore completely unaware of any image of ourselves, of how we think we might look to others. The moment we become aware of ourselves from the outside in, as an image that others can see, or as a subject that holds a particular meaning, symbolic or otherwise, then we split from that primary experience of the physical world and must think. Traditionally, painting offered an optical escape from this world, by providing a window onto another. Sculpture can offer some sort of escape, too, through an actual engulfment in the physical.
In art school critiques, my classmates sometimes said my work looked “feminine” and “domestic.” I could see what they meant, but that was never my intention and still isn’t. I like pink, and if someone wants to say that’s because I’m a woman, then perhaps it is. I’m interested in those kinds of cultural judgments that come from the outside. In the end, I decided to just do what I want to do, to use the materials and colors I want to use, because I want to enjoy making the work as much as I can. It’s hard enough to make something that’s any good, so you may as well start with some sort of self-indulgence.
I felt that judgments of femininity or domesticity were derogatory and that they meant, perhaps, that the work was not very good or not serious. (I still wonder why I thought and, to a certain extent, still think that. Is it because of some residual misogyny in myself?) There are a lot of men who use pink—Franz West, for instance. But who says that his work looks feminine or domestic?
Why is it only women’s art that is gendered? I was recently asked, “How do you think your work would differ if you were a man?” Would anyone ever ask a man, “What would your work look like if you were a woman?”
Judy Radul, World Rehearsal Court, 2009, seven-channel video installation, 4 hours. Production stills.
Judy Radul is a Vancouver-based interdisciplinary artist whose recent works investigate the relationship between performance and documentation. Here she discusses her new work World Rehearsal Court, which opens October 9 at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia.
IN VANCOUVER, a high-security courtroom was built for the Air India trial, which was held between April 2003 and December 2004. When I saw images of the room in the newspaper, I realized that I was looking at a kind of theater but also a cheap video studio, one that, through wood panel and red carpet, was trying to hold on to traditional courtroom trappings and grandeur. Its bunkerlike appearance is in contradistinction to that of the courthouse itself, which, designed by Arthur Erickson, uses a lot of glass and open space to express more typically utopian values about transparency and participation.
One thing that struck me about this and other new, high-security courts that I have visited since is that the audience is divided from the action by a wall of bulletproof glass, and although they can look through and see the proceedings live, they also watch the action unfold on a closed-circuit television. The whole court is very technological as well as theatrical, and this wall of glass reminded me of seeing a performance of Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater where Plexiglas was used to concretize the fourth wall.
When I began to consider making a work that would specifically reference the court, I thought that I might as well reference the one that is perhaps grandest in terms of aspiration—the International Criminal Court (often erroneously called the World Court). This is a supranational court, built in anticipation, or recognition, of an increasing “need” to address the new category of “crimes against humanity” and to end immunity for political leaders who carry out breaches of international law.
In World Rehearsal Court I am interested in our political, social, and technical apparatuses. Most people seem very interested in the argument or judgment of specific cases—they are rendered into a narrative by the process of the trial; this extraction of meaning and causality seems important to me, but I am less interested in working with the specifics of any one case. The script for World Rehearsal Court is from proceedings of international criminal tribunals for both the former Yugoslavia and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which is trying Charles Taylor of Liberia. But all names of places, people, religions, groups, armies, factions, and associations have been changed to fictitious ones. The structure more or less takes the form of vignettes, so you never get a whole picture.
Originally, I thought I would make a ten-minute video that would reference a trial and get across my specific formal interests in the theater of the court; I have registered this by using one discrete camera for each member of the court. However, when I attended the trials, I realized that this compressed view was already well known and quite erroneous. In court, things are rendered in detail so slowly and at such a high resolution—looking at all the assertions made by witnesses and the evidence gathered from so many angles. I found this quite amazing. It teeters on the absurd, partly because so little else in our culture is allowed to proceed at this cautious pace. Instead of a ten-minute video, I ended up with a video that is four hours long.
When watching trials, we are aware that in the background there are numerous registers of power—the police, prisons, and the Law (with a capital l)—and that the trial itself is just the tip of a more invisible process. The trial actually has a kind of utopian dimension, a hope of bringing things into the public realm and the public record. But what strikes me is that the lawyers, the judges, the defendants, the guards, and the many, many clerks and team members are in a kind of fishbowl where some of them have been appearing, perhaps in the same trial, for several years. And you see these human actors trying to take on these much larger roles—the role of “judge” and “prosecutor” and even “accused.” Yet they don’t fit so seamlessly into these more abstract categories. Theatrics and aesthetics are therefore called on to reinforce, or make believable, the individual’s assumption of a role, and the judge may refer to individuals as “Mr. Defense,” “Ms. Prosecution,” or “Mr. Witness.”