Ferenc Gróf


Société Réaliste, Universal Anthem, 2013. Performance view, Szabadság tér, Budapest, April 26, 2015. Photo: Aknay Csaba, the Orbital Strangers Project and OFF-Biennale Budapest Archive.

Hungarian artist Ferenc Gróf and French artist Jean-Baptiste Naudy make up the Paris-based artist duo Société Réaliste. On April 26, 2015, the group organized a performance of Universal Anthem, 2013, which Gróf describes here as a “parody of contemporary musique concrète,” for the OFF-Biennale Budapest. As Gróf describes below, the event was performed with a brass band in front of a controversial monument. Gróf will also present a lecture-performance in Budapest on May 13, 2015, during the Former West conference. The OFF-Biennale Budapest runs through May 31, 2015.

WE COINED SOCIÉTÉ RÉALISTE as the name for an unrealized exhibition that would have analyzed parallels between contemporary art and socialist realism, which was the official artistic style of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. It was not meant to focus on the former Soviet countries but to excavate some of their underlying algorithms that are related to the ideologies of contemporary art. When we started this collaboration more than ten years ago, it was the high time of relational aesthetics, especially in Paris. So our practice was meant to be a kind of critical relational aesthetics, analyzing how economics, politics, and language modify or influence contemporary art.

For Universal Anthem, we developed software that can calculate the average of any number of musical scores, note by note. We created a database of the national anthems of the member states of the United Nations, ran it through the software, and then worked with a composer to clean up the result, which is almost unplayable by any human. The score is a parody of contemporary musique concrète—Stockhausen on LSD. Our goal is to deconstruct one of the main national symbols. It’s a vandalist attitude, but sometimes criticism itself is more pertinent than proposing a new construction, or a bright new future.

It was important for us to play Universal Anthem right now in Hungary because of the country’s recent nationalistic tendencies and its anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, ethnicist discourse of the last few years. The performance took place in Budapest’s Szabadság tér, or Liberty Square, where last year the government erected a monument to the victims of the German occupation. For many, the monument symbolizes a denial of the Hungarian state’s responsibility during World War II and the Holocaust. The organizers of a countermonument, the Living Memorial, have been demonstrating against it since then, a kind of sustained protest that has never before happened in Budapest. They invited us to perform Universal Anthem with a brass band in front of the two monuments as part of the OFF-Biennale Budapest.

The performance was a great moment with great coincidences. The organizers of the Living Memorial explained to me how to position the audience around the border of a fountain that is in the center of the square, which temporarily shuts off the fountain, so the noise wouldn’t overpower the musicians. The musicians stood in the middle of the audience. It was very powerful with the kitschy monument behind, the police circulating around, and this usually very loud, but now silenced, fountain near the musicians.

Right now I’m researching some of the cultural icons of central Europe. For the Former West conference, I will present a sequence of graphic works titled Švejk in the Third World War, 2015. It is an imaginary continuation of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek’s novels The Good Soldier Švejk and follows Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 sequel play Schweik in the Second World War.

— As told to Kelly Cannon

View of “Yuji Agematsu: Walk On A,B,C,” 2015. Photo: Paula Court.

Since the late 1980s, New York–based artist Yuji Agematsu has amassed a collection of photos and detritus assembled from his daily perambulations around the city. For inaugural programming at its new location, the Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned the artist to develop Walk On A,B,C, as well as performances with live sound improvisations that continue his investigations into the overlap between the forces of habit, dislocation, and trauma that structure everyday urban experience. Here he discusses his process and the show, which runs from May 6 to May 11, 2015, in the Susan and John Hess Family Theater at the Whitney.

PRIOR TO THIS WORK I HAD BEEN COLLECTING small objects for years. I don’t own a laptop or a smartphone, so I keep a notebook on me to record the location and atmosphere around objects at the particular moment I find them. Since I couldn’t physically take the shadows and the stains around them, I walked around the city with a camera. I started to shoot pictures around Times Square right before 9/11, and after that the atmosphere changed because of tight security, fears, and the police. People had gotten so nervous, so I moved to walking around midtown, shooting the ground or at people, their gestures, and their attitudes.

For the Whitney show, I started shooting in September 2014 and continued until the beginning of last December, while the new building was still under construction. On Fridays and during the weekend when I wasn’t at my day job, I brought a camera and took photos around the neighborhoods along the High Line area. I was drawn to the density—the vertical contrast between the artificial gardens lining the High Line and the mess beneath it. I divided the area into three sections, A, B, and C. I walk around in circles to see places again and collect things again at the same spot, but since nothing stays the same in the city, the pattern and the point of view change each time.

The photos I made were an attempt to equalize the contrast between the stains on the street and the manicured sections of the High Line. To create the slides of these pictures, I used a microscope and would occasionally layer an image with things I had found. With the microscope I could zoom in on all the flowers and trash to make the details visible but strange. People ask if I manipulate the objects or their shape, which is kind of a boring question to me. Transporting these objects from one point to another constantly changes them, so they’re always being manipulated.

In the theater at the Whitney I project the slides onto several plywood screens in two different sizes. One size corresponds to the size of subway kiosks and maps that tell people where to go while they’re waiting. The other size is based on construction site fences around which growth seems to metabolize. I’m showing my photos using ten analog slide projectors that all eventually phase out of sync with each other.

It’s really important for me to think about the conversion between analog and digital technologies in relation to memory. For example, when I go from this building up to the High Line, my memory is constantly exposing or experiencing both spaces, as if in a layering of film. My memories are constantly being double-exposed. When I recorded cicada sounds from my hometown in Japan in 1997, I remembered the sounds as being much slower than they ended up being on record. The BPM is too fast for me, so for my performances in this installation, I wanted to manipulate the frequency in order to hear the adjustments I make between the natural, the analog, the digital.

— As told to Karlynne Ejercito

View of “Martial Raysse,” 2015. Photo: Fulvio Orsenigo.

Following Martial Raysse’s recent retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the first major monographic exhibition of his works outside of France since 1965 is currently installed at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi. Here the artist discusses his nearly sixty-year career and his visionary use of neon. The show is on view until November 30, 2015.

WHEN GIORGIO DE CHIRICO was asked why his naked self-portrait from 1945 was his favorite painting, he answered, “Because it’s the best painted.” Ditto for my new paintings. In terms of progress, I feel that the paintings that I have submitted to the Palazzo Grassi are the most successful I have made. If I did not feel this way, I would not show them.

I probably bring more depth and emotion now to my paintings, or at least I hope so. Above all, art is a story and a practice. It’s about being able to translate a deep human poetic emotion into volume and color. To work with different media is absolutely natural. I may have the desire to paint or to film or to cut wood, but the subject is of primary importance. It imposes the choice of the artwork’s components. Before, I used neon as something to go beyond color, but the use of neon in recent years in the world of art is too commercial. The public salivates in front of neon like Pavlov’s dog, and it has prevented me from using it in my work.

My painting finds its expression in portraits, still lifes, and so on. I choose the same topics today because human feelings are always the same throughout history. It is a continuum. At every period of my life, I put all my resolve into producing accomplished works in the way that was mine in that time. I would not change my old paintings. I value them today as I do my own children.

Success is obviously a payback for all these years of working without being understood, but my goal is not to be applauded. Rather, it’s to succeed in painting a good work of art. My fundamental, lifelong need is to put beauty in the world. It is amazing to live the adventure of exhibitions such as the Centre Pompidou and now the Palazzo Grassi, but I also have to understand that time is running out, and it is imperative to express myself before thinking about all other considerations. It takes me several years to paint a piece. Since 1999, I have known the dates of these two shows, and I have been able to plan very far in advance the distribution of work between the two exhibitions. My way of working is impossible to hurry, and just one thing matters: that the result is close to what I hoped to do.

A great painting is ageless like clouds. Having said that, if you want to find your bearings, there are some milestones—schools of thought—that use of a lot of words ending with ‘’ism.’’ I have no regard for labels because, for me, modern and contemporary art that we know, that is being taught nowadays, is not the true history of art. It is only the story told by the art dealer.

— Translated from French and as told to Janelle Zara

C. Spencer Yeh performing at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2014. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

C. Spencer Yeh is a New York–based artist and musician who is well known for his voice-based performances. For the past twenty years he has recorded as Burning Star Core and under his given name. His new ten-track record, Solo Voice I – X, was released this month by Primary Information as an LP in an edition of 500. He will perform the record in entirety at Artists Space on June 23, 2015, as part of a 2015 residency at ISSUE Project Room.

I’VE USED MY VOICE in a lot of other recordings, and for years I had been saying—or threatening—that I would do an all-voice record. A one-instrument album is a tradition in free jazz—the solo saxophone record being a common example. In musical genres like that, whatever instrument you get associated with immediately becomes your spirit animal in a way. Originally, I was more associated with the violin, which is the instrument I could never get away from. As a teenager I ignored it until it crawled to the corner and disappeared. The violin returned to me when I felt my training had sufficiently collapsed so I could build something new. I was never trained in voice but felt fascinated by it drawn toward using it. Pinballing between speaking English and Chinese as a child was my training, perhaps.

When I started using my voice, it was a lot more outward, animated, and physical than playing violin. I was pushing air out, and it was more about projecting. A few years ago, though, I started becoming interested in inward vocal sounds made by inhaling, or the sounds that are closer to yourself—incidental sounds. I was using a bunch of pedals and effects on the violin in my work, but then I thought, I feel like all I’m hearing are the effects. So I decided I wasn’t going to use any effects, and it became about volume, about using amplification as a magnifying glass and using the microphone as an instrument as well. It made for a very dry sound and pushed me to figure out how to work within that limitation. Sometimes a track sounds like a swarm of bees or a ghost ship pushing through ice, but it’s just my voice, unaltered.

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

C. Spencer Yeh, “Excerpts from VII and III,” 2015. From his album Solo Voice I – X.

I first got hooked on the use of voice when I was younger and into Japanese noise and noise rock à la Boredoms. Yamatsuka Eye was one of the first voices that hooked me, and I think part of it was that his approach felt particularly free. From there I moved into modern practitioners like Henri Chopin and Jaap Blonk, noted performers of text-based sound poetry and composition. Joan La Barbara, a vocalist and composer around New York––her record Voice Is the Original Instrument moves beyond typical speaking in tongues. To me, it seemed like she was trying to turn voice into just another sound, texture, or instrument.

I was thinking about how to abstract the voice without running it through some effects box, because, again, when you do that, it sounds like the box. I wanted to get rid of those brackets of breath between sounds that define a phrase, that define a unit of speech. Those pauses give the listener assurance that the sound is legible as language. I was interested in how you might dismantle language: How do you destroy it or disempower it? Vocals are usually number one in a mix, and they are supposed to be commanding, but why does this one thing always have to be the most powerful?

— As told to Paige K. Bradley

My Barbarian


My Barbarian Double Agency production still. Photo: Robbie Acklen.

Making fun may be our best strategy for survival. Or at least the best way to stay cool in the heat of the in-between, the space of interruption where My Barbarian does their most incisive work. Here the notorious collective—founded in 2000 by Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade—talks about “Double Agency,” a multipart, multimedia project built on and around the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the institution’s fiftieth anniversary this month. A Double Agency performance featuring My Barbarian with Robbie Acklen, Nao Bustamante, Jibz Cameron, and Adam Dugas takes place at LACMA on Tuesday, April 28 at 7:30 PM.

BACK IN 2013, Rita Gonzales and Christine Y. Kim invited us to make a performance celebrating LACMA’s fiftieth anniversary. We knew that our project, “Double Agency,” would have to be more than a one-time performance and so we also made a four-part web series and twelve masks, a bait-and-switch that sort of defines the work’s logic as a whole.

The three of us grew up going to LACMA. The museum has plans to replace much of its campus with a new, singular building, and one thing that interested us, aside from the fact that the buildings we grew up with are coming down, was the ersatz nature of the place. You can read the architecture archaeologically: The buildings’ shapes and materials tell you the history, and this suggested to us a kind of time travel, like watching a bunch of episodes of Doctor Who back to back. It also looks like a movie set, something like the old MGM lot where you had ancient Rome next to a town in the Wild West.

Given the resource of this “studio lot” and the way we ourselves inhabit an in-between space in the museum as artists who make experiences as well as objects, we decided to explore the spy-movie genre—a form where things aren’t as they seem and people have multiple, competing allegiances. We began a web series to be shot at LACMA that we would release prior to the performance. After working together for fifteen years, we know that you make a performance and then it’s done and all you have is documentation that may not even be watchable. But TV is always supposed to be watchable.

Working with the curators, we researched LACMA’s collection of masks and selected examples from the Mesoamerican, Asian, African, and Ancient Western collection, uncrating and photographing them so that we could make our own LACMA show. Using prop-making techniques from theater and Hollywood, we created exact forgeries of twelve of them. These will be shown at the final performance, which is a song-cycle masquerading as an art opening, a video shoot pretending to be a performance, an exhibition called “Masks of the World”—at which they will be stolen.

My Barbarian, Double Agency: Episode One: The Viewer and the Viewed, 2015.

We watch a lot of TV, and while there are echoes of experimental films, performances, and videos in this project, the first three seasons of Mission: Impossible (1966–69) were very much on our mind. The Cold War milieu, the duplicitous LA backdrop, the obsession with technology that looks like one thing but does something else, and the political dress-up of the characters who work for a non-governmental spy organization all connected with us because in many ways, as intermedia artists in the twenty-first century, we have that job too.

In a way the “Double Agency” project, from webisodes to masks to live performance, is all television. The title becomes both a pseudonym for My Barbarian and a description of how we work among fields of cultural production. As black-box theatricalists who snuck into the white cube, we are double agents, serving our own idiosyncratic interests even as we collaborate with institutions to serve the “public,” a designation rife with contradictions in the museum context, one which we have designs on exceeding.

The characters were modeled on those played by Gregg Morris, Barbara Bain, and Peter Graves in the original Mission: Impossible, but since we never “act” in our work, we used these models to adapt our own personae. Malik Gaines becomes Agent Mike Games, who sets out on a mission to infiltrate the elite Non-White Commission on European Beauty and Excellence. Jade Gordon is Agent Jazz Jordan, who accesses the museum offices by pretending to be Franka Petersen, a non-contemporary art curator whose hypnotic exhibition “Masks of the World” is designed to spread a favorable ideology. And Alexandro Segade is Agent Alonzo Degrassi, who assumes the identity of a security guard to expose another impostor in a dangerous mission that will bring him into conflict with the very question of life itself.

The three of us joke a lot together; double-entendres and bad puns are often the seeds for works to come. Many of the artists who inspire us—Eleanor Antin, Asco, Jack Smith, Lorraine O’Grady, Ann Magnuson, Vaginal Davis, Andrea Fraser, Coco Fusco—are funny, even as their satires scathe. But we are also interested in making work that has a kind of beauty that comes from loving the flawed constructions people make to represent themselves. We revel in the baroque trappings of genre. We wear wigs for a lot of reasons. So the joke’s on us too.

— As told to David Velasco

Joan Jonas


Joan Jonas, Reanimation, 2014. Performance view, HangarBicocca, Milan.

Born in New York in 1936, Joan Jonas is a pioneer of video and performance art, known for her continuous and seamless merging of cutting-edge technology with historic, ancient, and often ineffable source material. Her latest work, They Come to Us without a Word, 2015, will debut at the US pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. The piece, which Jonas discusses here, incorporates videos, drawings, objects, and sound and extends her investigation into the writings of Halldór Laxness. For more, check out artforum.com’s video of excerpts from this interview. The fifty-sixth edition of the Venice Biennale runs from May 9 to November 22, 2015.

I MOVED BACK TO NEW YORK in the mid-1960s to pursue an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. I was married at the time, and we had an apartment on the Upper East Side. My ex-husband was a friend of Henry Geldzahler’s, so we were connected in an indirect way to all the downtown events. For instance, I first heard La Monte Young in those years, which had a deep impression on me. Not long after, I decided to switch from sculpture to performance, having been inspired by works I’d seen by Living Theater, Lucinda Childs, and Claes Oldenburg, among others. I also began taking workshops from dancers—Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton—because I wanted to learn how to become a performer and to move in front of an audience. The switch didn’t seem like a big change because, like other artists in that era, I became interested in combining different aspects of the time-based arts—for me, dance and film—to create my own language. It was also important to me to reference literature and poetry. It still is.

I wanted to have my performances last, and that’s why I started making videos. From the beginning I worked with video and I thought of the medium in terms of what is peculiar to it, as compared with film. My early work had an immediate and positive response. Although the audiences were small, word spread very quickly.

Frankly, I never liked the term performance art, as it limits people. It’s like a lot of women don’t want to say their work is “feminist” even though it might be—my first few works were certainly affected by the women’s movement. I think that one’s work continues to be affected and one continues to be concerned with such issues. You don’t forget them and you don’t leave them out; it’s just that they are no longer focused on in a particular way.

At certain times I recycle some of my early videos. For instance, in Reanimation, 2014, I use Disturbances, 1974, which was shot in a swimming pool, though in Reanimation it is more about representing a watery world. While working on my new piece for Venice, which deals with ghost stories that come out of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—an area I’ve visited and lived in since the ’70s—I suddenly saw that I’ve made visual references to ghostlike images for years without thinking of them as ghosts.

From the beginning I was interested in the people and landscape of Nova Scotia. I’ve always been attracted to mythology and folktales, and when we first went there I loved that the older people still believed in ghosts and told stories about magical things that happened in nature. I was very drawn to that culture. Also the fiddle music from there is beautiful. For the Venice piece, nearly all the background footage is from Cape Breton, which I shot over various years. It interests me to mix different video technologies, to compare the way things looked then with how they might look now.

I made a video last summer with my dog wearing a GoPro in Cape Breton and mixed it with footage from two other video cameras that I had. It interested me to see that footage against the other format. In the ’90s I shot videos that I never used, of young women performing in the landscape of Nova Scotia. I do a lot of that kind of work when I’m there, and I don’t necessarily use it. But in a strange way it fit perfectly into this current project, and so I like very much seeing this square format all of a sudden appear in the present rectangular format. I find it very interesting to see those technologies intercut with one another. I think it’s part of the process.

I’ll go to Canada again in August. It will be the first summer in which I won’t have an immediate deadline of new work. I’ve gone through many stages of processing for this Venice project—doubting, being excited when it was accepted, and then being scared that I couldn’t more or less come up to the task of being in that spotlight, which is what it is. It is quite complex to be representing a nation. It’s the most focused upon show in my experience. But now that my work is almost ready in the pavilion, I am simply happy to be here, without thinking on what it means to represent the United States. Of course I am excited to be selected; it is a great privilege, and I made the piece with this place in the back of my mind. It is wonderful to be in the context of the Biennale with so many good artists past and present. I most enjoy seeing new work by others, being able to do a new piece myself, and to have people see it all.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler