M. K. Guth is a Portland, Oregon–based multimedia artist and filmmaker who has exhibited widely and received critical praise for her work in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Her exhibition at the World Financial Center in New York opens January 6.
THERE ARE DEEP CONNECTIONS between my current project, This Fable Is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle, which is part of Mark Russell’s 2010 Under the Radar Festival, and the installation I created for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping––but there are a lot of departures as well. The similarities revolve around narrative structure and the amplification of collective voice and human presence, and also around the consideration of a particular site. But the two projects are significantly different.
The Whitney installation was truly interactive; however, in my new work, the public does not interact with the piece physically, but through acts of generosity. People who live and work in lower Manhattan have donated all the materials—used clothing and fabric—that compose the project. These materials have directly shaped the appearance and process of the work, but the public has not literally helped to construct the installation as they did at the Whitney. My new work is arguably more expansive, and it presents the process of the piece in three successive phases.
In November, during the first phase of the project, I conducted a residency at 1 New York Plaza in lower Manhattan. The residency space was an old retail store that is now used by artists. It has two large banks of windows, so the public could view me at work with my assistant, the New York–based artist Molly Dilworth. The space acted as a window onto the performance of our labor. People could witness materials undergo transformation for the exhibition. I took into account aspects of display and construction. So, for instance, as Molly and I processed donated materials, we worked in unison: cutting, folding, hanging, stacking, or sewing––using the same types of movements––and placing materials with a mind to the aesthetic qualities of place. Each week, the space changed to complement a different form of work, accumulating into an environment of diverse forms, colors, materials, and gestures.
The exhibition––the second phase of the project––takes place in the gallery at the World Financial Center. It features long lengths of cord braided from the used fabric and clothing. The cords are anchored to backpacks hung along the walls of the gallery. The backpacks are removed from the walls for the performances and then replaced. The gestures of the residency are also captured in the exhibition, but in other forms––filling vitrines, for instance. The show acts as a staging area for the performances, and the original labor of the project is still present there.
The January performances are the final phase and culmination of the project. They involve twenty-four volunteer performers from different backgrounds––some are people I met during the residency who work in lower Manhattan, some are artists, writers, performance artists, etc. Each of the twenty-four performers will wear a backpack with a sixty-six-foot braided cord attached to it––thirty-three feet on either side. As the performers walk throughout the Winter Garden, they follow a series of choreographed movements based on maps I created in response to the architecture and significance of the site. As the performers shift, they create shifting geometric shapes––temporary sculptures––that amplify the shape and character of the Winter Garden. The braided cords connect the performers. As the performers change formation, they must carefully negotiate and manage the cords.
The geometric shapes created during the performance resemble much of the reflective glasswork in the atrium and also some of the intricate stonework on the floors. I’m interested in how the performers will amplify the human presence of the people who work in lower Manhattan and the patterns they follow in their daily lives. The title of the piece, This Fable Is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle, is inspired by an 1836 Hans Christian Andersen story. In the story there is a mirror, and when someone looks in the mirror, it tells the person about his or her life. I like the idea that a work of art tells everyone a little bit about everybody else––either through a reflection or a collective voice.
As part of Neery Melkonian and Defne Ayas’s cross-cultural curatorial project, Blind Dates, artists Ahmet Ögüt, of Turkish-Kurdish background, and Nina Katchadourian, of Armenian and Finnish descent, recently launched the project of transposing respective (and shared) letters in each other’s names. Aside from its legal and contractual performance, AH-HA constitutes an act of intimacy both literal and ideological between two artists who barely know each other but whose collaboration necessarily binds them to an ongoing rapport.
ALTHOUGH WE’VE ONLY been set up on a “blind date,” we have decided to use this opportunity to bind ourselves to each other for life. Our project AH-HA is centered on the act of exchanging letters in our names. Through a legalized transaction, we’ll trade the two letters that already overlap, namely, the shared h and a. We will trade one letter now (the a) and the other later, most likely on the event of one of our deaths.
The gesture might seem reminiscent of an organ donation or a blood transfusion. But the reciprocal nature of the exchange creates a different dynamic: one of barter, trade, or rebalancing, rather than of donating or salvaging. The fact that one letter is exchanged now binds us into a contract with each other in the present. The fact that we must wait until some unknown point in the future for the other letter (and only at that point is our piece complete) places the work in a kind of suspension.
Between ethnic groups or cultures that have been at odds, there is often the expectation that there will be a visible way to differentiate between them, when this is in fact very complicated and often untrue. The invisibility of the gesture is therefore central to this project, and at the center of the concept. Nina Katchadourian would become Nina Katchadourian; Ahmet Ögüt would become Ahmet Ögüt. But embedded in our names would be these “foreign,” and ultimately assimilated, letters. We become guardians of one of each other’s letters now but also promise to step up to this task in the future. We set this piece into motion in the present, but moving forward––by having exchanged one of the letters and then needing to wait for the other letter––the past and future will also always be “present.”
We will structure the letter exchange as a contract, based on the legal concept of “consideration,” meaning “something of value given by both parties to a contract that induces them to enter into the agreement to exchange mutual performances.” When something is merely gifted to someone else, it does not take on the structure of a contract. Perhaps paradoxically, we need each other’s letter as, in this case, to bind ourselves to each other such that we can exchange the letter hs later.
The exchange of the letter h would be based on the structure of a will. Both documents will be drawn up legally and will bear legitimate legal weight and responsibility. We have been in contact with several lawyers in different countries to determine the legal procedures. Part of the work’s next phase is probing how the “invisibility” of the exchange might be transferred to, or represented through, a legal discourse.
An exhibition about Blind Dates will open at the |www.pratt.edu/
Left: View of the new complete edition of The Interaction of Color (2009). Right: Josef Albers.
Nicholas Fox Weber is the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and the author of more than ten books, including The Bauhaus Group (2009) and Le Corbusier: A Life (2008). On December 21, Yale University Press will publish the new complete edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color in a two-volume set with a foreword by Weber.
JOSEF ALBERS ALWAYS EMPHASIZED what was universal and timeless in artistic values. The happenstance of a given time period, the rise or fall of a trend, did not matter to him; in fact, he considered art to be the antidote to the hazards of time. We honor that perspective at the Albers Foundation. Yale has long wanted to do this project, and in 2009, it finally came together.
The Interaction of Color was originally published in 1963 and has long been out of print. Of course there were the usual number of humdrum newspaper articles based on the press release from the publisher at the time. But beyond that, there was tremendous excitement on the part of artists. The book was excerpted in Art News in March of 1963, and it quickly excited artists and art lovers everywhere. Dore Ashton wrote about it in Studio, while certain color scientists and theoreticians responded in technical journals with some of their quibbles.
There are not many differences between the original limited edition and the new complete edition. But naturally, nearly fifty years after the original publication, I try to put the book in a historical perspective in my foreword. At the same time, having been lucky enough to know Josef quite well, I try in my way to make him come alive.
Other than my foreword, the only changes in the new edition are that the text and commentary are bound into a single volume and the 150 color plates that were printed with screenprint technique in the original are now done in offset, taking advantage of advances in that technique. These have been bound in a separate volume. Some of the studies that were in the original––the work based on art by the old masters, and certain leaf studies––are not included in the new volume, but three leaf studies from the archive that were not in the original are in the revised edition. The reason for this is that we wanted to use richly colored originals in order to achieve lively reproductions; we did not want to start out with faded images.
The Albers Foundation was able to provide production and editing supervision for the new edition, and we also located and made available those original leaf studies. Brenda Danilowitz, an expert on Albers’s teaching and on many aspects of his art, has been with the foundation over a period of years; she has gained deep understanding of his color theories, and she was involved in numerous details for this book.
Working with Yale was fantastic. Part of my relationship with Josef was the respect he had for me being a printer’s son, and I was happy to be involved with details like paper selection and slipcase design. We worked with Yale on the cover and the packaging, too. They understood the central importance to Josef of every aspect of design, of texture, spacing, and typeface and respected us as the source of his viewpoints.
Ronnie Bass, The Astronomer, Part 1: Departure from Shed, 2009, stills from a color video, 9 minutes.
Ronnie Bass’s exhibition “The Astronomer, Part 1: Departure from Shed” at Marginal Utility in Philadelphia comprises a video, a sculpture of a fountain, and a live performance, which relay a narrative about an astronomer, his assistant, and a man under a blanket. Below, Bass discusses the video and the process of composing its simple, emotive score. The exhibition is on view through January 10.
THE CHARACTERS in my work are all pretty similar. There are slight differences, but they’re basically just an exaggeration of who I am. They all have my interests, too. Like the astronomer in this video, I always wanted to be an inventor. I still do. In a way, I also think the astronomer might be a hack, but I believe in him more than I don’t believe in him.
Most of my work is about preparation and potential. When I watch a film and read a book, I’m interested in what’s happening––I don’t want it to conclude. This has been true in a lot of my videos. The Catastrophe (with Tommy Hartung) and the Ribbon Cutting works are about preparing. I can’t actually have the characters accomplish the things they’re setting out to do. I’ve claimed that everything I make is “in progress,” so you’re left in the transition area, where there’s more potential. The big difference with this work is that it’s also about moving forward.
The crux of the video is moving from a character saying “I’m afraid” to saying “I’m not afraid no more.” This is part 1 of three potential parts. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet in the other two parts. In this particular video, I play an astronomer who looks through a telescope and sees that the planets are aligned in the right way, so he knows it’s time to go. The astronomer and his assistant prepare for a journey––they drill into a rock to extract a fluid, mix it with minerals, and make some kind of elixir for their journey. There’s also a guy under a blanket who is afraid.
Ronnie Bass, The Astronomer, Part 1: Departure From Shed, 2009. (Excerpt)
The idea for the piece started with the simple idea of being afraid under a blanket. I wrote a song about it in five minutes. For me, the songs that work happen quickly, like a freestyle rapper would do it. They become closely connected to a particular way I’m feeling. Then I refined the sound, working on it for eight months. I finally pulled out a video camera about two months before the show opened.
This video has two songs: The first is a tribute to the country singer Townes Van Zant. Then there’s the “I’m afraid to go” song. There are probably about 150 songs that didn’t make the cut. When I first started composing ten years ago, I only knew three chords. When I learned more, the production became sophisticated, but then I had to pare it down because it was too much. I’ve gone back to using two or three chords. It works well with call-and-response themes, for which each chord represents a character when they speak: C: “It’s time to go.” G: “I’m afraid.” C: “We don’t have time.” G: “But I’m afraid.” Those are the only two chords in that song. It’s rare for a song to be that simple. You pick up the corresponding chord subconsciously. When G strikes, you know it’s me talking. With the absence of voice you can still hear the G and C because it continues, so there is still a dialogue.
Toward the end, the astronomer is sitting with the assistant looking through the telescope, and the guy under the blanket says, “I’m not afraid no more,” to which the astronomer replies, “It’s too late, we missed our chance.” But the guy under the blanket repeats that he’s not afraid, and the astronomer recognizes that there’s still a sliver of opportunity to go. So they go, or at least we see the image of a shed fading to black.
Until the Light Takes Us is a film about several Norwegian black-metal musicians who earned international attention in the 1990s following a wave of church burnings and murders. It opens December 4 in New York, Providence, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, with many other dates to follow. Directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell discuss the film here.
BEFORE WE WENT TO NORWAY, we did extensive research. The two people we felt we absolutely had to have in the film were Gylve Nagell [of the band Darkthrone] and Varg Vikernes [of Burzum]. Both were notorious for not giving interviews, which made it daunting. We approached Gylve first, not only because he was one of the originators of Norwegian black metal but also because he was someone who had largely steered clear of the media frenzy in the wake of the church burnings, murders, and court cases in the mid-’90s. He was not involved in the crimes and he didn’t take part in the interviews that many of the musicians were doing at that time.
Approaching Gylve first did two things: First, it let the people in the scene know that we didn’t want to make a sensational crime drama or investigative film, because he was really the last person to speak with if that was the film we wanted to make. Second, we really clicked with him––he’s easy to talk to, he’s interested in art, and his knowledge of music is almost encyclopedic, so we had a lot to discuss outside of black metal and the film. With Varg, however, it was a 180, a totally different experience.
We spent eight months corresponding with Varg, trying to get him to do the film. He was not at all receptive. He kept sending back letters that said, “Even if you made exactly the movie that I myself would want to see, I still won’t do it.” Eventually, he agreed to a meeting to discuss the film, so we flew up to Tromsø Prison. Once there, we were able to explain what we were trying to accomplish, and he was very eager to do it.
One of the things that made Varg open to participating was that we had a very detailed plan: We didn’t just go to Norway with cameras and wing it. We had a very serious fifty-page outline for what we wanted to do with the movie. We were able to answer any questions anyone had about the film thoroughly and in-depth. The key was getting Varg and Gylve to be comfortable—and getting good interviews.
The story of black metal dovetails with postmodern theory and contemporary art. The fact that contemporary filmmakers and artists like Harmony Korine and Bjarne Melgaard are working with the tropes and ideas of black metal and are putting it into a new context (and thus redefining it) is a process we wanted to explore with the film. The film itself is an extension of that recontextualization. It allowed us to explore black metal, get into that story, find out what happened, and get to know the people who propelled that narrative. But at the same time, we were able to follow a different thread about what was going on with contemporary artists, which took it into a whole new realm.
There’s a scene in the film when Gylve visits Bjarne’s exhibition in Stockholm and he’s surrounded by all these photographs of musicians that he knows. He meets Bjarne, and there is a palpable degree of discomfort. It was a very complex thing for Gylve, because it’s his life––he has a perspective on black metal that no one else in the world will have.
A lot of people ask us how we were introduced to black metal since we come from an experimental-music background and didn’t grow up listening to metal. Our friend Andee Connors, who runs Aquarius Records in San Francisco and occasionally plays in Aaron’s band, Iran, sat us down and forced us to listen to it. Though we weren’t really open to listening to metal before, we ended up loving the music, and the more we got into it, the more obsessed we became. It has an aura of secrecy, it’s somewhat guarded, there are all these extreme statements and actions and at the same time certain voices of clarity and intelligence. The whole thing didn’t add up, and that intrigued us. We decided to search for a documentary on the subject, but we couldn’t find one. That’s why we decided to make this film. Because we wanted to see it.
Left: Nari Ward, Blue Rung, 2008, wooden ladder, metal gate, shoe tips, plastic, zapper, blue pigment, 78 x 21 x 38". Installation view. Right: View of “30 Seconds Off an Inch.”
Naomi Beckwith is an assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She organized the exhibition “30 Seconds Off an Inch,” which explores the intersection of identity politics and dominant tendencies of the 1960s, from conceptual practices to Arte Povera. The show is on view until March 14.
I DON’T WANT TO BRAND something called “Black Conceptual Art.” It’s less a question about who produced the work than of the object’s material history. If you can get to that history, and if that can take you to a very specific place, culturally and racially, then that’s where you locate the blackness. It becomes a secondary discovery rather than a necessary attribute of the work itself.
“30 Seconds Off an Inch” does not look at the conceptualisms that followed Minimalism. Instead, it investigates the kind of art that asks the viewer to think about something beyond the sheer materiality of the object, beyond formalism and formal practice. The works ask you to wonder where the trash originated, for instance, and about the history of a specific cloth and clothing, or whether the work is appropriated. There is a history and a lineage to all the works in the show that lend themselves to conceptual thought beyond the objects.
The viewer should have a sense of recognition when walking through the exhibition. There is not a lot of tape around the objects—I want visitors to be able to put their noses up to the works. The objects in the show are not to be seen as metaphors, but very literally, and you don’t need an advanced degree in art history to read them.
Nari Ward’s Blue Rung, 2008, is a pivotal object in the show; it’s a work that is completely opaque. The only way to get into it is by engaging with its constitutive elements. It’s both a collage and a sculpture. It’s familiar, even though it looks like nothing he’s ever done. It was important to me to ask, How can a three-dimensional object be both abstract and speak to a specific cultural background?
More often than not, culturally specific institutions and artists identified as gender or ethnic “others” are asked to speak about and for political and social issues. Oddly, exhibitions and works are assumed to be political statements even above art and aesthetic objects.
The Studio Museum has done an interesting job probing how and where one can locate blackness. It’s become a place where you can ignore race, or foreground it, or set up a more complicated relationship between aesthetics and social questions of race and identity. This is when we are at our best, when we allow artists to challenge the viewers, with art that pulls us through conversations that question where race is located and its relationship to aesthetic history.
It is important for me as a curator to provide a space in exhibitions where those discourses can thrive. “30 Seconds,” as a project, takes no position about race and contemporary race relations, nor are the works expected to do so. The show examines practices and conceptual tools that allow for art to encompass and include politics as an attribute. My goal for this exhibition was to present works, many of them abstract, that ask viewers to locate the socius within the aesthetic and then think about what the social realm implies.