Friday, April 23, 2010

ARTISTS’ BOOKS IN (what was formerly known as) EASTERN EUROPE What, how and from Whom, by WHW

What, How & for Whom (WHW) is a non-profit organization for visual culture and curators’ collective formed in 1999 and based in Zagreb, Croatia. Its members are curators Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević , Natasa Ilić and Sabina Sabolović , and designer and publicist Dejan Krsić . Since May 2003 WHW has been directing the program of Gallery Nova – a non-profit, city-owned gallery in Zagreb. Among WHW''s international shows are: What, How & for Whom, on the occasion of the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, Association of Croatian Artists, Zagreb, Croatia, 2000; Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna, Austria, 2001; Broadcasting project, dedicated to Nikola Tesla, The Technical Museum, Zagreb, Croatia, 2002; START City gallery Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2002; Gallery Karas Zagreb, Croatia, 2003; Looking Awry, Apexart, New York, 2003; Repetition: Pride and Prejudice, Gallery NOVA, Zagreb, Croatia, 2003; Side-effects, Salon of Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, 2004; Collective Creativity, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, 2005.

Contrary to the common understanding of the social and artistic situation in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which tends to ignore differences in favor of a homogeneous view that suitably supports the political agenda of the cold war, developments in art were rather heterogeneous. As in the West, the production of artists'' books in the East during the 60s, 70s, and 80s was connected to differing neo-avant-garde, conceptual, performance-based and post-conceptual practices, announcing the opening not only towards innovative forms, but also towards innovative ways of presentation, circulation, distribution, and validation outside of the established art system. Practices of artists'' books, magazines and so-called “pages as an alternative space” emerged as a form together with neo-avant-garde practices, in opposition to ideological instrumentalization of art as well as in opposition to a moderate bourgeois, apolitical and decorative modernism. Artists were attracted to printed matter thanks to its simplicity and functionality, its directness and effectiveness in the dissemination of their ideas.

In the process of creating these modes and spaces of artistic production, the form of artists'' books/magazines played an important role. Although there was a lot of correspondence and many contacts with the international art world, self-publishing in countries of the former Eastern bloc is a distinct phenomenon. While in the West artists'' books eventually took advantage of the expanding market for visual arts, production of artists'' books in the East for several decades remained detached not only from the market and specialized publishing houses, but also from cultural and art institutions. Only recently, and partially prompted by the interest of Western institutions in the history of avant-garde production in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, has a process of gradual and still insufficient valorization of the art of that period started in local environments.

What might be considered as the crucial difference from the production of artists'' books in the West is the specific politics of that practice in the East, not only in terms of an implicit or explicit critique of the art system and its institutions, but also of power structures in a broader society. This applies not only to the clearly dissident and underground "unofficial" practice of “samizdat” in the Soviet Union and in other countries of the Eastern bloc, which was located completely outside of the official system, but also to marginal practices developed during more tolerant periods and situations in these countries, as well as in non-aligned, "pro Western" Yugoslavia. Acting against official institutions, or at least apart from them, these practices were politically engaged, but not as a “battle against the darkness of Communist totalitarianism”. The political practice of art was realized as a fight for the complete self-realization of individuals and culture, against real bureaucratic limitations, taking socialist ideology more seriously than the cynical political élite in power did. The production of artists'' books in former countries of the Eastern bloc and in Yugoslavia is positioned within the broader context of alternative cultural movements and their articulation of politics.

The production of artists’ book in Eastern Europe has a complex and still insufficiently researched and publicized history. The focus of this article is not on the aspect of the artists’ book understood as physical form transformed in certain “auratic objects” or “democratic multiples”, but rather on transformative and communicational aspects realized through different forms of artists’ publications, magazines, books, samizdats, etc., which form a parallel to the institutional art system and at the same time its critique. The focus is on the potential of social, critical and institutional spaces that such practice could generate, on the impact that different artists’ groups, collectives, and temporary and informal communities have on the practice of artists’ books and publications, and on the ways in which neo-avant-garde practices of self-publishing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s formed communities, related to international art scenes, and continued to affect younger generations of artists.

Though artists’ book practice intensified during the 70s and 80’s, a few examples of artists’ publications can be found already in the 1960s, as is the case with neo-avant-garde Gorgona group, active in Zagreb, Croatia from 1959 to 1966. Gorgona consisted of artists (Josip Vanista, Marijan Jevsovar, Julije Knifer, Đuro Seder, Ivan Koz arić, Dimitrije Basičević – Mangelos) who shared common affinities and not any stylistic program. Gorgona’s activities were of an unspectacular nature; Gorgona was a process of searching for artistic and intellectual freedom, the achievement of which was itself their aim and purpose. The way they conducted their activities had nothing in common with most artistic groups, and its non-formality is one of the reasons why Gorgona remained unknown and undocumented so long. Gorgona affirmed absurdity, emptiness, monotony as an aesthetic category; nihilism, metaphysical irony, and its nature might be compared to the poetics of Fluxus or neo-dada.

The anti-magazine Gorgona was published between 1961 and 1966 (11 issues, each of them the work of a single artist, conceived to be realized within a few printed pages), in which they also collaborated with Victor Vasarely, Harold Pinter and Dieter Rot. Through its publications and numerous art concepts and projects, Gorgona established correspondence and contacts with numerous international artists like Piero Manzoni, Robert Rauschenberg, and Lucio Fontana. "The artists’ awareness of the absolute autonomy of the publication, of the medium in which they made their works, gave Gorgona a special status among artists’ publications of that period. Compared to such magazines as Azimuth, Spirale, Material, Zero, Nul, etc., Gorgona seems more radical, more oriented toward future conceptual developments."

For Dimitrije Basičević Mangelos, an art historian, art critic, museum curator, and a poet and visual artist working under the pseudonym Mangelos, who was a member of Gorgona group, production of books consisting of alphabets, no-stories, projects, concepts, and manifestos remained a constant element of his work from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. Mangelos'' work is a unique mixture of writing and painting in the form of work-texts on globes, school boards, notebooks, black painted books, etc. He wrote no-stories, texts and poetry inscribed in notebooks painted black, and drew over art reproductions, which he called anti-peinture.

Although its members were not socially marginal, Gorgona''s activities at the time occurred mostly in total anonymity, without any prospect of their work being recognized. Like Gorgona’s, the activities of the Slovenian group OHO, active between 1966 and 1971, are a unique introduction of Fluxus-like activities into the cultural space of former Yugoslavia. OHO has never been formally established, though the year 1966, when a book OHO and a programmatic text known as OHO Manifesto were published, is considered as its beginning. The large and shifting membership included many artists, critics, poets, filmmakers: Marko Pogačnik, David Nez, Milenko Matanović, Drago Dellabernardina Iztok, Geister Plamen, Tomaz Salamun…. In the first phase of OHO’s activities, between 1966 and 1968, 20 artists’ publications with drawings, texts, visual poetry, letters ands objects were published in small editions.

Even at the level of “official” art, at different times and at different places there were various levels of imposition of ideologically produced soc-realism (or of modernist abstraction supported by the state, which was the case of Yugoslavia beginning in the late 50s). In the former USSR the practice of samizdat and artists'' books production happened within the context of an unofficial system that existed in unique historical conditions that produced the most innovative work in the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s. Since the 1930s, art in Soviet Union had been under direct state and Party control, and the crucial task of alternative art was not directed to the organization of public space but to the development of artistic language without official censorship. The unofficial art system was independent from a private art market as well as from the state institutions. In Moscow the activities of the unofficial scene reached its climax in the 80s, when artistic life became very active in reaction to the state apparatus repression. Samizdat Art was an independent movement in literature and politics. The term itself means "self-publishing" and it was used as an ironic paraphrase of the term Gosizdat: "state–publishing". Samizdat Art extended the idea of an artists'' book and transformed it into various unusual provocative forms which aimed towards the establishment of different forms of artistic practices. Samizdat–Art is closely linked to practice of so called APT-ART that encompassed artists arranging exhibitions in their apartments and studios, inasmuch as both practices stood for the principle of creative freedom. Much like the Gorgona group in Zagreb, also in its time practically anonymous in the local environment, an ironic relation to everyday life and a conceptual attitude were crucial for the development of artists’ books in USSR. Conceptual art has been born out of poetic and post-visual experiments and samizdat was not its special genre, but rather a broadly applicable strategy and a new social phenomenon of resistance to the state repression. Many artists who practiced samizdat participated in important unofficial artists’ gatherings, circles and groups that organized exhibitions and workshops, in which collaboration and collective strategies became working strategies.

The first artists’ books in Russia were made in the 1960s, with the big impetus coming from the poets of older generation (Liazonovo Group). The books were produced manually, with the use of carbon copies, writing machines, and collage techniques. An important contribution to artists’ book production was made by a younger generation of Moscow conceptualists, like the groups Gnezdo/Nest (Victor Scersis, Michael Roshal i Gennady Donskoi), S/Z (Victor Skersis i Vadim Zakharov), and especially through the work of the group Mukhomory (Sven Gundlakh, Sergei and Vladimir Mironenko, Konstantin Zvezdochetov, Alexei Kamensky), whose work included performances with books and various books/objects made of manually produced paper. In the middle 70s the first artists’ magazines were made, ranging from manually produced unique copies of the magazine Metki (1975) and art magazines such as A-YA active from 1979 through 1986, in which subsequently the entire local and expat Russian art community took an active part, or Transponans Journal 1979 – 86 (which gave way to the Double Journal), to Collective Farm, which was published in New York.

For unofficial artists, illustrating children books was often the only way to achieve professional status and many artists made their living in such a way, but some utilized it to develop an authentic artistic language. A series of conceptual albums, for example Ten Characters (1972 - 1975) by Ilya Kabakov, are reminiscent of wall newspapers and of children’s book illustrations. In 1973 he was working on his series of philosophic-encyclopedic albums, such as Anna Petrovna in Seeing a Dream or They are Flying. Large book boxes were filled up with drawings and the albums were presented in the form of a two to four hour performance in which the artist himself was presented turning the pages and reading the text to the audience. The conceptual use of albums by Ilya Kabakov and another artist Viktor Pivovarov in the early 70s established innovative parameters for artists'' books production.

Another unique example of performance and artists'' books and samizdat-related practice may be found in the work of the group Kollektivnye Deistvia/Collective Actions. The group was founded in 1976 by Andrey Monastirsky, Nikolaj Panitkov, Nikita Aleexev and Georgy Kizevalter, later joined by Elena Elagina, Igor Makarevich, Sergey Romashko and Sabine Haensgen. Kollektivnye Deistvia/Collective Actions is primarily a performance group, engaged with different kinds of actions mostly in outdoor spaces. Their performances followed a uniform dramaturgy: an invited group of spectators would take a train to a suburb of Moscow, from where they headed to a large field that served as the stage for the majority of the CA performances. The audience was requested to compose a written description and interpretation of the performance. Usually, the audience could observe only a part of the whole performance, which was partly happening outside of their field of vision. In addition, the group was also engaged with abundant documentation which was presented in a form of samizdat publication. All performances and actions were documented and issued together in the edition Journeys to the Countryside, Moscow, 1999. Many members of Collective Actions (N. Alexeev or I. Makarevich) independently produced artists’ books. Andrey Monastirsky started from the intersection of poetry and language experiments, which resulted in graphic conceptual books and books/objects designed to be manipulated and completed by spectators (Elementary Poetry no 9 – Heap, 1976).

The practice of the artists’ book introduced not only new relations towards the work of art, but also towards the audience. Among many Moscow-based artists like Dmitri Prigov, Francisco Infante or Rimma Gerlovina who were exploring the medium in 70s, the example of Passport for Trans-State (1977) by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid has especially strong political meanings. In this booklet resembling a Russian passport the artists suggested a virtual trans-national state and produced its passport, money, etc.

May 75 from Zagreb, Artpool from Budapest and Mental space from Belgrade are examples of so called “pages as an alternative space” phenomenon, in which the practice of artists’ books is directly related to strategies developed by a group aiming at creating an innovative, critical, active context for the presentation and reception of their artworks, a framework that removed itself from the mainstream, bypassing the traps and censorship set by the institution of art.

May 75 was a self-published magazine (18 issues) initiated by the Group of six artists (Boris Demur, Zeljko Jerman, Vlado Martek, Mladen Stilinović , Sven Stilinović, Fedor Vučemilović) and named after the first exhibition-action of the group. May 75, issued from 1975 through 1981, consisted of individual pages made by artists, multiplied and arranged into a whole and published in small editions. May 75 was an open collaborative platform in which many artists of similar artistic persuasions took part, and it was conceived as an alternative against the official cultural policy of the times.

In Yugoslavia in the 1970s many artists within an unofficial alternative artistic movement of the so-called “new art practice” were producing artists’ books, but for Goran Trbuljak, Mladen Stilinović, Vlado Martek and Sanja Iveković , book-making became an extensive activity. Artists’ books by Sanja Iveković confront public and private sphere in the deconstruction of dominant patriarchal models and political matrixes, while Goran Trbuljak’s books are self-referential and self-ironical analyses of the art system and of the artist’s position within it. Mladen Stilinović and Vlado Martek, whose work is connected to activities of Group of six artists and May 75 magazine, produced a number of mostly handmade books, “open editions”. Stilinović’s books are focused on relations between issues of work, poverty, laziness, power, cynicism and pain, while Martek’s deal with complex issues of re-signifying, juxtaposing and merging of verbal and visual signs in exploration of language understood as a complex amalgam of philosophic and poetic elements.

In the context of Yugoslav “new art practice”, also important is a group of artists active in Belgrade in the 1980s, Association for space research (Zoran Belić Weiss, Dubravka Đurić, Nenad Petrović, Marko Pogačnik, Mirko Radojčić, Misko Suvaković), formed around critical analysis and theoretical aspects of art. The group published four thematic anthologies of texts called Mentalni prostor/Mental space, with textual and visual contributions by the group members as well as international artists such as Art & Language, Marina Abramović, Jospeh Beuys, Lawrence Weiner, etc.

Unlike socialist Yugoslavia, where book production was not subjected to direct censorship, but rather to institutional marginalization, “in Hungary until the middle of the 80s the right to publish was reserved for authorities”, due to almost total lack of institutional support and high market prices in publishing, In the situation in which the public had no access to copy machines and printing studios, and artists could print only under the category of “graphic art”, the activities of Artpool in the 70s and 80s had almost heroic proportions. Artpool, an alternative cultural institution in Hungary working with an archive on experimental art, was established in 1979 by György Galántai and Júlia Klaniczay as an alternative art institute, connected to Chapel Exhibitions held in György Galántai''s "summer studio", the Balatonboglár Chapel, from 1970 to 1973. By the time the police closed it down, the Balatonboglár studio had established itself as the center of officially proscribed avant-garde art. György Galántai and Júlia Klaniczay established Artpool at a time when art forms out of keeping with the official cultural policy were denied access to the public. Periodically banned, but on the whole tolerated, Artpool organized many exhibitions and art events, and published several anthologies and art catalogues between 1979 and 1990. From 1983 to 1985, they put out eleven "illegal" issues of Aktuális Levél (Artpool Letter) , a "samizdat" art magazine which continues to serve as the sole documentary source on the non-official art of those years. Aktuális Levél was also important for the establishment of international contacts and the context of Hungarian art.

In Poland from 1971, the artists Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek formed KwieKulik, an artist couple group that ran an independent Studio for Art Activities, Documentation and Propagation (PDDiU) in their private apartment in Warsaw. PDDiU was involved in documenting artistic activities of both Polish and foreign artists encompassing objects, films, artists'' books, documentary and theoretical works, actions, interventions, performances, as well as activities associated with mail art.

As in other Eastern European countries, in Czechoslovakia in the 60s and 70s innovative tendencies in the work of artists who during the 70s became part of the international art scene, locally remained isolated and apart from official artistic circles. Apart from the group Aktuel that produced tabloid-sized sheets describing their happenings and political positions, the continuous production of hand-made books by J.H. Kocman is crucial to a history of artists'' books. In the second half of the 60s Kocman produced a series of collages that explored the relations of authorship and the processes of work finalization, while in the 70s his work intensified its conceptual and de-materialized components. Kocman also made mail-art and stamp-art. Being self conscious about the book form, Kocman explored and deconstructed the structural possibilities of the book form, focusing on the immediate effects of material, and made book-concepts and blank books whose message is self-contained.

Although artists worked in different contexts—in relative freedom in Yugoslavia and at different levels of state repression in countries of the Eastern bloc—the inheritance of that period is a strong tendency towards the development of parallel systems and tensions between progressive practices and institutional support. In different environments of former Eastern Europe, positions related to the critical evaluation and presentation of neo-avant-garde practices by the institutional and non-institutional cultural sector are still rather in confrontation. The institutional sector is still largely dominated by a mainstream understanding of art which keeps many elements of the modernistic paradigm (notions such as utopianism, formalist esthetic values, the idea of artists as heroes, the transcendent character of art, separation of art and life, art as opposed to theory, etc.) that are opposed to actual contemporary practices of artists, and for many artists forms of self-organization and self-publishing continue to be the central concern. For example, magazine Chto delat?/What is to be done?, founded in early 2003, brings together artists, philosophers, social scientists and writers from Moscow and St. Petersburg. This workgroup publishes a Russian-English newspaper on issues central to poetics and politics today, with a special focus on the Russian artistic-intellectual situation, and in that manner the magazine clearly reflects the lack of institutional spaces for production and circulation of ideas and concepts. More focused towards local communities is Skart, an experimental art and design group founded in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1990 by Dragan Protić and Đorđe Balmazović. By combining poetry, performing arts, architecture, graphic design, and community engagement, Skart’s “critical communication” works often involve strategies for self-production and self-distribution. Within her project “The Exhibition of the Local Newspapers”, carried out in different cities since 1994, Zagreb-based artist Ivana Keser either uses locally published newspapers for her interventions in a gallery or in public space, or she produces her own private newspaper, written, illustrated and published by herself. The newspapers as the symbol of the construction of official reality are susceptible to various manipulations, as well as to corrections based on subjective experience, which is a position that Ivana Keser radicalizes by publishing her private newspaper for comments about life and contemporary society, often using humor and paradox.

In Romania, in which, under the Ceausescu dictatorship, ideologically imposed state regulation of artistic production was extremely harsh, the production of books as objects was very prominent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the visual culture, traditionally strongly linked to literature and narration, book objects proved to be especially suitable for exploration that prompted expansion into installation pieces. Only in the 1990s did Romanian artists start to print. Apart from Version magazine, founded in 2001 at Cluj-Napoca, which functions as an internationally circulated and conceived artists‘ public space, whose members, artists Mircea Cantor, Ciprian Muresan and Gabriela Vanga, also produce individual artists‘ books and magazines, the artist who for more than a decade has consistently produced artists‘ books and newspapers is Dan Perjovschi. In his notebooks, books and newspapers&#mdash;often produced by institutions in Western Europe or international biennials&#mdash;or on the walls and floors, inside and outside of exhibition spaces, Perjovschi’s simple, reduced, caricature-like style of drawing, in direct and explicit ways, yet always coated in humor and irony, conveys political meanings located deep in the practices of everyday life, media consumption, daily politics and cutting-edge trends in art world.
The production of contemporary artist‘s books, magazines and publications in the former Eastern Europe continues to disprove the illusion propagated by a victorious capitalism which claims that with the fall of the Berlin Wall ideologies as we know them disappeared. The ideology is as strong as ever&#mdash;it is called neo-liberalism&#mdash;and in the East it advances under the slogan of “normalization”, which hides the chronic lack of political imagination and stands for production of consent and consensus. In spite of a seeming disappearance of fundamental aesthetic differences between Eastern and Western art, contemporary artists’ books and publications cannot be defined solely by their “aesthetic paradigms” and still continue to reflect on political, social, economical, institutional and market circumstances that produce their forms and contents.

Thanks to: Zdenka Badovinac, Vjera Borozan, Boris Cvjetanović, Dan Perjovshi, Bojana Piskur Branka Stipančić, Mladen Stilinović, Leonid Tishkov, Igor Spanjol, Viktor Misano

The following texts were consulted in preparation of this article.

Bibliography: Degot, Ekatarina .Russia: East Art Map, Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe London: Afterall, Central Sain Martins College of Art and Design, 2006.

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. New York City: Granary Books, 1995.

Gerlovin, Rimma and Valery. Russian Samizdat Art. New York: Willis Locker & Owens Publishing, 1986.

Misiano, Viktor. Moscow Recollections, East Art Map: Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe ed. IRWIN, London: Afterall, Central Sain Martins College of Art and Design, 2006.

Darko Simičić. From Zentith to Mental Space: Avant-garde, Neo-avant-garde, and Post-avant-garde Magazines and Books in Yugoslavia, 1921 – 1987,Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918 – 1991. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.

Tchoudetskaia, Anna. Catalogue of Books, Not Only to Read: Artists'' Books, Russia 1970 – 1990 (exh. cat.) Moscow: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, 1999.

Valoch, Jiri. JH Kocman Artists'' Books and Papers. Prague: Galerie Rudolfinum.

above copied from:

Video Theory, Scott McQuire

Being asked to talk about theory, about the theory of video or the relation of video to theory is a problematic task. To suggest why, I want to begin with a quote from Sean Cubit's book Videography. Cubit writes:

There is no video theory in the way that there is a body of knowledge called film theory or, rather differently, television studies. There never will be. Not being really a simple and discrete entity, video prevents the prerequisite for a theoretical approach: that is, deciding upon an object about which you wish to know. (Cubit, 1993, p. xvi)

This is a viewpoint with which I have some sympathy. Cubit points to the vast range of activities the term "video" commonly covers—a minimal list would include feature films on video tape, music videos, home video recordings (both with the VCR and domestic video cameras), closed circuit video surveillance, corporate and information video, video used for legal evidence in the police and court systems and so on. I haven't yet mentioned television. And, in a forum like this, we shouldn't forget video art in all its manifestations.

So, we're faced with a problem. We can restrict video to specific objects or practices, say video tape or video cameras. But then the term is already bordering on archaic. Or we can extend it to the realm of "electronic imagery"—as I am inclined to do—but then we risk losing a sense of a specific object or practice to which it applies. This sense of the problematic nature of video is shared by many people. I am reminded of John Conomos, speaking at the first of these forums, where he argued persuasively that video is a hybrid art, or, rather, a medium characterised by hybridity. His opinion is close to that expressed by Jacques Derrida in an essay on Gary Hill where he concluded that the question of the identity of the medium—which generally revolves around the specificity or uniqueness of video compared to other media—is "badly put." (Derrida, "Videor", p. 178)

As I said, I have a lot of sympathy for these positions. But I think there is also another side to this issue. As much as there is a heterogeneity of practices which go under the name "video," the eagerness to acclaim video as a hybrid medium, or a medium of hybridity, needs to be measured against the transformations of theory which have occurred over the last twenty or so years—in other words, over video's life. In particular, I would point to the crisis of disciplinary boundaries, the sustained questioning of the value of totalising theories, of identifying the essential qualities of an object, and particularly of the practice of setting up rigid lines which divide what is "inside" a field from what is outside. These sorts of theoretical presuppositions have become increasingly suspect in the present. Derrida is one point of reference for this transformation—arguably a crucial point of reference given the manner in which the deconstructive critique of binary oppositions has become something of a template for the intellectual shifts associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism.

While there isn't time to discuss these shifts in detail here, the general effect has been to make the role of theory newly problematic. In a forum like this, I think we need to recognise that this current uncertainty about the role and nature of theory and particularly the security of disciplinary boundaries is linked to a broader crisis in knowledge. And this, in turn, is intimately linked to the growing displacement of the theoretical norms predicated on the traditional culture of the book by the rise of a spectacular image culture. None of this is particularly new—it has been going on for at least one hundred years since the industrialisation of photography and the invention of cinema. But it does suggest that as much as video offers a new kind of object for theory, it is also part of a profound transformation of the social and cultural conditions within which theory is produced. So if we are moved to term video a hybrid form, what does this tell us? Rather than simply accepting this as theoretical progress, we also need to look at the way in which certain, apparently entrenched theoretical problems, have been displaced by new ones.

Throughout the twentieth century, modernism in its various guises took it as a more or less explicit program that the highest purpose of art was to analyse and define the specificity of each medium. Probably the most influential advocacy of this aesthetic of pure form came in Clement Greenberg's defence of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s. For Greenberg, Abstract Expressionism was unquestionably the pinnacle of modern painting because it eliminated the concerns, techniques and problems inherited from other art forms: narrative was left to drama, representation to photography, while the delimitation of flatness finally removed painting from the field of sculpture. What this model implies is that art develops by a process of reduction, by the elimination of all extrinsic characteristics until you arrive at what is—presumably—a core. A centre, a pure essence.

I'm piling up these terms which are today so unfashionable, not to poke fun at Greenberg, but to underline the break that contemporary theory is seeking to make. Or, at least, claims itself to be making. In fact, while Greenberg's rather austere formalism often reads like an artefact from another world, many of his assumptions have survived that particular cultural moment. If we take a rather different moment—the development of screen theory in the 1970s and 1980s—the language is very different, brewed from a heady mix of Marxism, semiotics, feminism and psychoanalysis, but a concern for the purity of each medium lingers. Writers such as Stephen Heath talked at length about "specific signifying practices," and posed questions along the lines of: how is cinema different to photography or television? How are those differences manifested—materially, ideologically, theoretically, practically? Again, the assumption is that by stripping the medium down to its unique features, you will find its innermost core, its own proper identity. (If you hold on to this perspective, as some do, video inevitably seems rather shadowy: in his popular book Art of the Electronic Age, Frank Popper writes video is "still rather poorly defined halfway between TV and the museum." (Popper, p. 68)

I'm making these points in rather broad brush strokes because I want to contrast this trajectory—according to which the "proper" role of the artist, and also the theorist, is the exploration and delimitation of the purity and specificity of the medium—with what might be called the other history of art. It's not a secret history, so much as a parallel history, one which for a long time was kept outside the boundaries of mainstream art history but has returned in the present with all the vengeance of the repressed to envelop art and is currently in the process of dissolving its old hierarchies and borders—in short, putting the very existence of "art" into crisis. This other history, the one pioneered above all by Walter Benjamin's essay on technical reproducibility or mechanical reproduction, concerns the status and function of the image in contemporary culture.

And it is from this other history that we can trace a concern, not so much for delimiting the specificity of different media, but for understanding their interrelationships. In other words, an interest in hybridity rather than purity, in transformation and intersection rather than discrete and stable boundaries, and so on.

Anyway, having raised this point, which I will leave for discussion, I now want to switch my attention more firmly to video. One of the problems, even for those theorising video as a "specific signifying practice" was that, while it was clearly different to photography and cinema, it was not entirely new. Moreover, I would argue that the arrival of video around the 1970s didn't make nearly as radical a break or cultural rupture as photography had in the 1840s or cinema in the 1890s. Nevertheless, it did stretch existing paradigms in a number of ways. In what follows, I want to trace this impact under three headings:

1) Instantaneity
2) Architectonics
3) Plasticity


The most obvious departure the video image makes from its cinematic cousin is that it can be instantly available: recording and broadcasting can be simultaneous, and this technological possibility has offered a wide variety of uses from broadcast television to remote sensing, from the proliferation of security and surveillance cameras in the urban environment to various artistic experiments.

I'll take Dan Graham as a useful point of departure to discuss the latter, not because he was unique—many artists undertook similar explorations in the 1970s—but because he can serve to index this trajectory. I'll begin by reading a piece from Graham's book Video-Architecture-Television. He writes:

Video is a present-time medium. Its image can be simultaneous with its perception by/of its audience (it can be an image of its audience perceiving). The space/time it presents is continuous, unbroken and congruent to that of the real time which is the shared time of its perceivers... This is unlike film which is, necessarily, an edited representation of the past of another reality... for separate contemplation by unconnected individuals. Film is discontinuous, its language constructed, in fact, from syntactical and temporal disjunctions (for example, montage). Film is a reflection of a reality external to the spectator's body; the spectator's body is out of frame. In a live video situation, the spectator may be included in frame at one moment or be out of frame at another moment. Film constructs a "reality" separate and incongruent to the viewing situation; video feeds back indigenous data in the immediate, present-time environment or connects parallel time-space continua. Film is contemplative and "distanced"; it detaches a viewer from present reality and makes him [sic] a spectator. (Graham, p. 62)

Clearly what Graham is describing is a particular possibility rather than a necessary consequence of video technology. In his own work he used this possibility to undertake series of experiments into space, architecture, perception and memory. For instance, he constructed rooms which staged contrasts between direct perception, mirror reflections, live video and delayed video.

Describing the piece Present Continuous Past(s) (1974), Graham wrote:

The mirror reflects present time. The video camera tapes what is in front of it and the entire reflection of the opposite mirrored wall. The image seen by the camera (reflecting everything in the room) appears 8 seconds later in the video monitor.

This means that the camera will tape the reflected image of the monitor, setting up an infinite regress of time continuums (always separated by an eight second delay). Further:

The mirror at right-angles to the other mirror-wall and to the monitor wall gives a present time view of the installation as if observed from an objective vantage exterior to the viewer's subjective experience... It simply reflects present time.

Graham also made a series of "time delay" rooms. In Time Delay Room 1 (1974), spectators in room A could see those in room B live on one monitor and on an eight second delay on the other, while those in room B could see audience A live and themselves on delay. Spectators could walk between the two rooms, which was timed to take about eight seconds. These time delay rooms constituted a series of quasi-psycho-sociological experiments in which Graham used live video as a tool to explore consciousness. His project is reminiscent of Dziga Vertov's 1929 film The Man With The Movie Camera which used cinematic reflexivity to similar ends. Graham was particularly interested in the relationship of consciousness to philosophies of reflection and transparency. Interestingly, while his writings often seem to accept the equivalence of perception with self-presence, his experiments point elsewhere—to the continual implication of so-called "direct perception" with the deferred effects of memory. In this way, he cross-hatches phenomenology with a more psychoanalytic perspective. While I find his rooms fascinating, I must admit that I also find them rather unnerving—they seem too close to all those contemporary spaces dominated by surveillance cameras. (And, of course surveillance video footage is increasingly appearing as art in a gallery context.)

Graham's idea of using video as part of a closed system or feedback loop was common to many artists—Gary Hill has been quoted as saying "Video's intrinsic principle is feedback." (Hill, 1993, p. 65) It fitted in nicely with the rise of systems theory and cybernetics being advanced by those such as Norbert Weiner at the time. It also marked a time when the idea of participatory art started to be channelled towards interactive art—a term which has been such a buzz word in the 1990s. In video works by artists such as Nam June Paik, the presence of the audience—whether as an image registered on a monitor, or as a sound event reproduced through an electronic feedback system—began to play an increasingly important role in providing the content and shaping the experience of the art work.

Paik also constructed some of the most hauntingly beautiful examples of video as feedback; for instance the various versions of his TV Buddha. Here the enigmatic relation between the immediacy of the live image and the materiality of the object is brought to a pitch. The Buddha, who sought to keep himself free from all external impressions by immersing himself in mystic contemplation, sits confronted by his own image. The resulting ambivalence in the status of both object and image reminds me of Maurice Blanchot's suggestion that there are at least two interpretations of the imaginary, the realm of images. (Blanchot, 1982, 254-263) There is the ordinary interpretation, according to which the image follows the order of reality as its mirror or re-presentation. But there is also the path where the image points to the absent thing, not by a strategy of mastery but by evoking its presence as absence. What Blanchot underlines—and what Paik's Buddha confirms—is that, in fact, there is no either/or choice between these two possibilities—faced with the image, we always experience an ambivalent mixture of presence and absence.


By architectonics I simply mean the way in which video has often been used by artists not simply to provide an image, whether live or delayed, but the video monitor has been incorporated as an object into a physical space blending sculptural and representational concerns. Video as installation raises interesting problems. Gary Hill has argued: "I think the most difficult aspect of using video in an installation is decentralising the focus on the TV object itself and its never ending image,: (Hill, 1993, p. 68) In other words, if the installation functions merely as pseudo-cinema or pseudo-television, habitual forms of fascination with the image can overpower the work as a whole. However, if the installation is able to place both the image and the viewer in a relation of otherness, there is the capacity to establish a new trajectory for "art," somewhere between the ubiquity of broadcast media and the melancholy situation of the fine arts lingering around the authority of the painted tableau.

Artists have adopted a number of strategies to this end. One is to render the familiarity of the domestic TV set strange, by foregrounding its physical-sculptural elements. Nam June Paik's work, from his "prepared" television sets of the early 1960s to the far more elaborate "stations" of the late 1980s, has been a leading edge.

Another strategy is to construct a scene of watching which plays explicitly with the norms of the cinematic spectator—for example Bill Viola's Passage where the viewer encounters the projected image via a long narrow corridor. But when you reach the image, it is too large, you are too close to it, you can no longer see all of it at once. So the dynamics of the spectator's body becomes an important element of the work and a very ordinary image, shot at a child's birthday party and projected in extreme slow motion, becomes heightened, almost abstract, uncanny. Rather than presuming a static observer who communes primarily with the screen, this use of video explores a kinaesthetic relation to the image in which each viewer's experience depends upon variations in their positioning. Lyndal Jones' recent video installations in her From the Darwin Translations series have explored a similar terrain.


The third area I want to address concerns the plasticity of the video image. As United States video pioneer, Woody Vasulka put it in 1969: "There is a certain behaviour of the electronic image that is unique... It's liquid, it's shapeable, it's clay ..." (Popper, p. 62). One of the things that attracted artists such as Peter Callas, who spoke at the first of these seminars a few months ago, to work in video, was the fact that you could not only do things to the image, but you could also immediately see what you had done. Before video, even the simplest dissolve on film had to go to the lab, and you had to wait days or even weeks to see what it looked like. The emergence of video imaging tools like the Quantel Paintbox and the Fairlight CVI started a trajectory which has subsequently seen the image subject to increasingly sophisticated manipulation and ever more detailed control. With digital technology it no longer really makes sense to talk about this as a fundamental difference between video and film—all these processes can now be done in the digital domain and then output to film, if that is what is desired and can be afforded.

What I wanted to talk about briefly is a shift in the aesthetics of the image: its increasing density and malleability. I wanted to approach this by considering the changing function of the frame from painting to photography to cinema to video. The frame becomes crucial in painting around the same time that painting begins to detach itself from architecture; it corresponds to the moment in the Renaissance when painting is being reconceptualised by those such as Alberti as a "window to the world." The function of the frame is firstly to demarcate the inside of the image from its exterior; but the stability of the frame also serves as guardian of the stable and centred position of the spectator.

This system continues in photography, with its inheritance of painting's visual language and its aspirations to be considered an art. But it does so with difficulty. The crux of the matter is that, with the number of "views" which begin to be made, the authority of the one "ideal" view which painting represented becomes increasingly tenuous. The shift towards an active frame, and by implication a mobile, decentred spectator, becomes more explicit with the arrival of cinema, and more, particularly, with the development of a cinematic language based around camera movement and montage. From this moment on, the frame delineates a point of view which is inherently unstable, shifting and highly mobile. The philosophic, political and social ramifications of such a shift are still being felt.

What happens with video belong less to this external axis of framing than to its internal dimensions. As the interior of the image becomes increasingly fluid, there are new possibilities for what might be called "internal montage." One aspect of this is the proliferation of internal "windows"—frames within frames—which can be seen in the work of a filmmaker such as Peter Greenaway. It's worth remembering that while, eight or nine years ago A TV Dante (1989), and then Prospero's Books (1991) looked radically different, their techniques are now becoming commonplace via broadcast television, computers and CD-ROMs.

This ability to treat the image as infinitely scalable, to manipulate individual parts and to combine different picture elements into complex, densely layered images can also be seen in the work of Peter Callas. Callas selects images from a wide variety of sources—cartoons, photographs, paintings, films, books—and "redraws" them into these distinctive graphics. He constantly cycles them through a varied colour palette and uses these oscillations to produce a nervy, unstable image composed of multiple layers—akin to a virtual puppet theatre.

In fact, none of these plastic possibilities could really be said to be unique to video. You could do similar things in cinema, only it was much more laborious and expensive. And, obviously, you can vastly extend these trajectories in the digital domain. This returns us to our "problem" with theorising video: it borrows from everything else, including writing. In this regard, it is interesting to speculate on video's role as screen technologies moves away from purely visual concerns to become a combination of image and text—a data screen for the information society. There is a profusion of theories beginning with Adorno and Benjamin which link the "compulsion" to process information to the perceptual stimuli of big-city infrastructure (and I think this background is one way of reading the "overloaded" videos of those such as Greenaway and Callas).

Probably the most legitimate historic claim we might make for video is that it formed an important way station in the movement from the chemical—physical image of photography and cinema to the ubiquity of digital effects—and its characterisation as a "hybrid" medium perhaps reflects this transitional status. We might add a second claim. In his essay "The Double Helix," Raymond Bellour suggests that the increasing tendency to decompose the image has been supported by the everyday use of video, by generalised access to the remote control, the fast forward/rewind functions, and so on. In other words, video has been a laboratory for the information society to come—and one crucially located at the heart of the contemporary home.

Blanchot, M. The Space of Literature (trans. A. Smock). Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Bellour, R. "The Double Helix" in Passages de l'image. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1990.

Cubitt, S. Videography: Video Media as Art and Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993.

Derrida, J. "Videor" in Passages de l'image. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1990.

Graham, D. Video-Architecture-Television: Writings on Video and Video Works 1970- 1978. Halifax: The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; New York: New York University Press, 1979.

Hill, G. "Interviewed Interview" in World Wide Video, Art & Design profile no. 31, 1993.

Popper, F. Art of the Electronic Age. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Scott McQuire is a Senior Lecturer in the Media and Communications Program at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of several books including Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera and Maximum Vision: Large Format and Special Venue Cinema, as well as numerous articles and essays. "Video Theory" was originally presented in 1998 at the "Videor" seminar at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, Australia.

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About Procedural Architecture, Arakawa & Gins


Do you want to live in an apartment or house that can help you determine the nature and extent of interactions between you and the universe? What lengths would you be willing to go to, or how much inconvenience would you be willing to put up with, in order to counteract the usual human destiny of having to die?

Procedural architecture is an architecture of precision and unending invention. Works of procedural architecture function as well-tooled works of equipment that help the body organize its thoughts and actions to a greater degree than had previously been thought possible. Set up to put fruitfully into question all that goes on within them, (works of procedural architecture) steer their residents to examine minutely the actions they take and to reconsider and, as it were, recalibrate their equanimity and self-possession, causing them to doubt themselves long enough to find a way to reinvent themselves.



What stems from the body, by way of awareness, should be held to be of it. Any site at which a person deems an X to exist should be considered a contributing segment of her awareness.


It is because we are creatures of an insufficiently procedural bioscleave that the human lot remains untenable.


Adding carefully sequenced sets of architectural procedures (closely argued ones) to bioscleave will, by making it more procedurally sufficient, reconfigure supposed inevitability.


Architectural bodies have everything to do with what a person makes of the fact, the soft but sure-enough fact, that she perceptually subtends, and as-if palpates, architectural surrounds as wholes.

There is that which prompts (architectural surround/tactically posed surround/tutelary abode) and that which gets prompted (organism that persons). Features of architectural surrounds/tactically posed surrounds/tutelary abodes prompt the body to act. Actions and maneuvers secure a general taking shape for an organism that persons of the characteristic features of a(n) architectural surround/tactically posed surround/tutelary abode. In responding to the ubiquitous call that comes from nooks, crannies, and nonnooks and crannies of a(n) architectural surround/tactically posed surround/tutelary abode — most observers feel that they ought eventually to get around to noting everything around them — a person assembles and takes on an architectural body, half-knowingly piecing it together into a flowing whole. The harkening to any feature or element of the architectural surround/tactically posed surround/tutelary abode, bodily stirrings and promptings included: a further articulating of the architectural body.

The dispersing and juxtaposing and culling of landing sites in respect to an architectural surround; a super-convening of many convenings; messenger-like — in rapport with all there is; that which revs as momentum — revved and revving; an amassing of the provisional; a ubiquitous piecing together. All that emanates from a person as she projects and reads an architectural surround forms an architectural body that moves with her, changing form depending on the position she assumes.

A person's capacity to perform actions is keyed to layout and composition of her architectural body.

The architectural body is a body that can and cannot be found. Boundaries for an architectural body can only be suggested, never determined.

The architectural body consists of two tentative constructings towards a holding in place: body-proper and architectural surround.

An architectural body critically — ever examining and always assessing — holds possibilities in place.

Architectural Body Hypothesis or Sited Awareness Hypothesis
What stems from the body, by way of awareness, should be held to be of it. Any site at which a person deems an X to exist should be considered a contributing segment of her awareness.

An architectural body exists paradoxically enough as that which is most probably specifically dispersed and even so only roughly present.

Covering a large area indeterminately, an architectural body, exists, when you come right down to it, as a statistical entity, with now these proportions, now those. An architectural body has theoretical and actual existence, but as an entity of this kind, it has such a remarkable degree of instability that it is fair to say it is as elusive as anything can be. This huge and difficult-to-track entity of sorts does have a highly visible generating source, and that is the human body, which itself has a statistical existence as a composite of actions and events in addition to its every man, woman, and child appearance as articulated corporeality.

A perfectly proportionate something or other that cannot even be determined as present and accounted for apart from what its definition specifies for it.

Take it as the near-animate group of loci its definition demands for it and accept that out it extends into an architectural surround, enormously expanding the body-proper; do not trouble yourself as to where in relation to a surround it begins or ends or fret over what its full extent might be.

The gist of biotopological thinking: No less attention should be paid to the atmospheric component of the architectural body (the bioscleavic atmospheric surround) than to the body proper.

An architectural body only more or less takes shape and only more or less presses forward and manifests as that which it is purported to be.


A juxtaposition of architectural elements and features for a particular purpose is referred to as an architectural procedure. An architectural procedure needs to be and has wound up being doubly defined, once, as a carefully juxtaposed area of the built world, constructed to be purposive to the nth degree; and then, too, as that sequence of actions that such an arrangement of elements and features invites. What results from the built world’s having been addressed procedurally can also be characterized as procedural.

Architectural procedures can be assembled into place (as juxtaposed elements and features) and invited to occur (as sequences of actions) across and between modules as well as within a particular puzzle-piece or module-type. 

An architectural procedure is a complex something or other. Perhaps no concept is clumsier. We urge you not to let its overarching clumsiness scare you off. It works as both a this and a that. Tactically posed surrounds remain what they are, but architectural procedures have two distinct stages of existence or levels of implementation. An architectural procedure definitionally unfurls as one segment or many or as one set-up or many of a tactically posed surround - level one of its first implementation. The level two implementation of an architectural procedure is the sequence of actions that a level on implementation constrains.

Movements and the sited awareness they modulate and that enfolds them mediate architecture; responding to tactically posed surrounds, joining forces with them, actions complete the architectural procedures that put (the) procedural into procedural architecture.

Architectural procedures used only for studying interactions between body and bioscleave have an observational-heuristic purpose, while those devised for transforming body and bioscleave have a reconfigurative one.

A person moving through a tactically posed surround will be led to perform procedures that may or may not be recognizable to her as architectural procedures.

All of a sudden, what seemed a group of disparate actions, the doing of this and that, may strike her as the steps of a procedure. If these procedures, which have a lot in common with medical procedures, elude their performers, they do so openly, or are constitutionally elusive. Always invented/reinvented on the spot, they exist in the tense of the supremely iffy. Not a fixed set of called-for actions, an architectural procedure is a spatiotemporal collaboration between a moving body and a tactically posed surround.

An architectural procedure resembles its predecessor, a word, in two respects for a start: first, it is a repeatable item that readily lends itself to discursive use; second, charged with conveying a specific experience or range of experiences, it can be evaluated as to how well it serves its purpose or how effectively it has been put to use.


Start by thinking of architecture as a tentative constructing toward a holding in place. Architecture's holding in place occurs within and as part of a prevailing atmospheric condition that others routinely call biosphere but which we, feeling the need to stress its dynamic nature, have renamed bioscleave.

Without exception, all that can be and does get detailed as bioscleave consists, by definition, of cleaving. We have an entire field alive with cleaving: bioscleave. From cleaving, by means and in terms of it, bioscleave, an event-fabric capable of giving and holding and functioning as life, forms. Although it can be put to a purpose, cleaving on its own happens aimlessly, in both its modes, in its coming together mode and in its pulling apart one.

Bioscleave denotes life in all its multiplicity as communally lived and all regions that can or could encompass the whole of this vivid crew in the fullness of their interaction on all possible scales of action at once.


A prescriptive supposition, the Closely Argued Built-Discourse Hypothesis presents architecture as the supreme context for the examined life, a stage set for body-wide thought experiments. With architectural procedures prodding the body to know all that it is capable of, this becomes an intrusive and active stage set. The body must either escape or "reenter" habitual patterns of action--habitual actions that have customized life into only a few standard patterns. Upon the body's mastering new patterns of action, bioscleave emerges reconfigured.

Adding carefully sequenced sets of architectural procedures (closely argued ones) to bioscleave will, by making it more procedurally sufficient, reconfigure supposed inevitability.

Closely Argued Built-Discourse Hypothesis.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Why paintings succeed where words fail, Gareth Harris

Belgian artist Luc Tuymans talks to us on the eve of exhibitions in Europe, Russia and the US
By Gareth Harris | From issue 205, September 2009
Published online 9 Sep 09 (Features)

Luc Tuymans (Photo: Grant Delin, courtesy David Zwirner, New York)Luc Tuymans has painted figurative works since the mid 1980s and few artists can be as closely identified with a particular palette. His taste for mouldy pastels, cool greys and dead plaster white make for blurred, obtuse images. This reductive colour scheme represents the elusive nature of history and memory, reflecting the artist’s belief that representation can only be partial and subjective. Loaded political themes are developed in seemingly tangential ways with the Holocaust, Belgium’s controversial role in post-colonial Congo (the influential “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man” series which was shown at the 2001 Venice Biennale) and the US response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks given an oblique, fragmented treatment. The diversity of Tuymans’s subject matter, which also encompasses banal paraphernalia such as wallpaper patterns and tea settings, goes hand-in-hand with his use of varied source material drawn from photography, film and television.

The latter features prominently in Tuymans’s first major Russian show at the Red October Chocolate Factory opening this month. Twenty new works, first shown in Brussels earlier this year, examine TV reality shows and the internet. The exhibition, part of the Moscow Biennale, forms part of a Tuymans onslaught this autumn with the artist’s first US retrospective also opening this month at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio and an exhibition curated by Tuymans and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei opening at Bozar in Brussels.

The Art Newspaper: You once said that your technique is “borne out of a genuine distrust of imagery”? What do you mean?

Luc Tuymans: Well, being part of the television generation means there is already an overload of imagery available. But a lot of the imagery is not lived through but just seen, or you pretend you’ve at least seen certain images, so this implies that there must be a huge amount of distrust towards what you’re looking at. The practice of painting is much more of a habit, rather than being something exquisite. If you try to create a style or refine your painting mode, you just lose the intensity of the moment.

TAN: Much has been made of the need to “decode” your work with viewers looking to your titles for guidance. Do you place too much responsibility on the spectator to unravel your images?

LT: First, you should not underestimate the public and try to be overly didactic which is always the problem with institutions, they force you to produce text after text. For my Tate Modern show [2004], the education department wanted bigger captions but I wanted to make them less visible. There were already explanations outside each gallery but each picture also required texts. We fought over it.

I started out as an artist to demythologise myself by giving the source material I’ve used. Journalists liked this, they knew what to write about me but later on they hated me for it because without any explanations, they couldn’t comment on me. It’s a controversy that really just exists in the media. My ultimate aim is to detach myself completely and look at my works as a spectator would but that is a dream.

TAN: Has your use of the bleached and blurred image reached its limits?

LT: That depends. Some of the later works are actually extremely colourful, like Orchid (2008). The blurriness is actually sharp because, unlike with [Gerhard] Richter, it is not wiped away but just painted. Painting is a very physical object, it’s very difficult to compromise it. It’s difficult to remember it correctly because it’s so complex. But it’s much more detailed than any photograph will ever be. But if you ask people to remember a photograph or painting, they’ll remember the photograph in terms of the size, colours, etc.

TAN: Do you believe art historians will credit your muted palette with creating a new kind of reductive form? Or would you rather they labelled you a post-modern history painter?

LT: Well, neither of those. I would be much happier if academics understood the idea of understatement. Art is not something you have to imply is political. Art is not political, life is political. Isms, such as modernism, post-modernism, etc, they’re just not applicable to the world we live in. The whole practice of painting is about two things: timing and precision.

TAN: It’s well documented that your childhood was dominated by various schisms in your family over the fallout of World War II. Can you explain how your personal history continues to have an impact on your vision?

LT: My mother was Dutch, my father was Flemish. They both lost brothers during the war. My father’s mother, she was a fanatic and determined to send her children to German schools. At the end of the war, my father managed to take his brothers out of school but he couldn’t save one of his younger siblings. Thirty-five years later, I was having dinner at my parents’ house when my father took a phone call. He went completely white because he had just found out that this younger brother had died as an SS mascot, with a bayonet in his belly.

On a historical level, WWII could have destroyed the whole of Europe while the Holocaust was a psychological breakdown of sorts. And these things completely shaped this part of the world and the US. So yes, the war has provided a basic underlying structure. I always saw it on two levels; on a personal level and then it grew into an understanding of why things are shaped as they are now. It triggered the Cold War, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden—they’re all creations of the west.

TAN: So would you agree that your work is deeply personal rather than historical?

LT: I think it tends to be more of the former than the latter. Of course, it’s been triggered by things of which I’m not totally aware, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Every visual is in opposition to language because if we could say everything, why make a picture of it?

TAN: So you are ultimately concerned with the fragile nature of memory in relation to both personal and historical events?

LT: It always remains fragile. Every aspect of history is partly false, it’s never complete, history writing can only be factual to a point.

TAN: But your recent art, such as your works on view in Moscow which explore aspects of virtual reality found in television shows and on the internet, seems to be about disengagement from contemporary realities.

LT: “Against the Day”, the show’s title, is taken from one of my favourite novels by Thomas Pynchon. It’s about the invention of paranoia in US literature. I’ve also been influenced by the 2008 films “There Will be Blood”, “No Country for Old Men” and “Control”. On a cynical level, these films achieve something the art world has not yet understood in that, in a sort of a reductive way, they work with a narrative on a different level. For example, there is no dialogue for 15 minutes at the beginning of “There Will be Blood” which is amazing. Two works on show in Moscow, Against the Day I and Against the Day II [a diptych showing a gardener digging], capture the effect of pressing the pause of a TV remote control. But they’re a combination of things set into a scene which are not real.

And then you have “virtual” ideas which are much more instant. An assistant of Fan Di’an [director of National Art Museum, Beijing] took a photograph of me and the red focus light distorted the image [I-phone, 2008]. It will be interesting to view these works in the context of how Moscow is developing; it’s a brutal city.

TAN: Would you ever make works with certain collectors in mind?

LT: No, I would never do that. What is more important is that together with my dealers, we’ve always guarded the work in the sense that it does not crop up too much at auction and when it does, it sells for the right price, or we just buy it back. I’m very well aware of the game with Charles Saatchi who bought pieces on the secondary market for his “Triumph of Painting” exhibition in 2005 and then dumped them after the show. The US tour should lead to steady sales.

TAN: Are you happy with the selection of works for your US tour?

LT: Yes, it’s taken a long time for a US institution to ask me to do a show. There are 76 works. I’ve installed all 80 of my solo shows myself. This is the first time I can trust other curators to install my art. They’ve decided to re-create three exhibitions as they were shown in commercial galleries [“At Random”, Zeno X gallery, Antwerp, 2004; “Der Architekt”, Galerie Gebauer, Berlin, 1998; “Mwana Kitoko”, David Zwirner, New York, 2000] and then will work around this chronologically. It’s interesting as they’re not the most iconic works.

TAN: How do you think US audiences will respond to your work?

LT: The Demolition painting (2005) will be shown which has 9/11 connotations along with the Condoleezza Rice portrait (The Secretary of State, 2005). Museum people didn’t buy it at the time because it was too topical. But then Glenn Lowry, MoMA director, decided to acquire it because she’s a public figure [Tuymans’s US dealer David Zwirner gave the painting to MoMA as a fractional gift in 2006]. It had been misunderstood in a private collection, it was out of place. The fact that it’s been acquired by a public collection is an interesting insight into how the American people think.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Alan Sonfist: a natural history, John K. Grande

Interview conducted by John Grande Montreal, Canada, October, 2008

Public nature: public art
Alan Sonfist is a visionary figure whose 40-year carrer in art has explored the relationship between natural history and human history. His works are driven by a sense of the past existing within the present. In the US, his most recognised piece of work is Time Landscape, situated on Houston Street in Manhattan. Here in the UK he's been working most recently with the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World in Devon. Curator and art writer John Grande caught up with Alan Sonfist recently in Montreal, Canada.

A pioneer of public art that celebrates our links to the land, Alan Sonfist is an artist who has sought to bridge the great gap between humanity and nature by making us aware of the ancient and contemporary nature - geology, landforms and living species - that are part of "living history". With a reawakening of public awareness of environmental issues and of a need to regenerate our living planet Sonfist brings a much needed awareness of nature's parallel and often unrecorded history and present in contemporary life and art.

As early as 1965 Sonfist advocated the building of monuments dedicated to the history of unpolluted air, and suggested the migration of animals should be reported as public events. In an essay published in 1968 titled Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments, Sonfist emancipated public art from focussing exclusively on human history stating: "As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings need to be remembered. Public art can be a reminder that the city was once a forest or a marsh."

Alan Sonfist continues to advocate, in his urban and rural artworks, projects that heighten our awareness of the historical geology or terrain of a place, earth cores become a symbol of the deeper history or geology of the land. His art emphasizes the layered and complex intertwining of human and natural history. He has bequeathed his body as an artwork to the Museum of Modern Art. Its decay is seen as an ongoing part of the natural life cycle process.

Here we are in Montreal after a visit to the Laurentians and we have just heard of Barack Obama’s victory. How are you Alan?

Great. It’s a beautiful day and I am looking forward to the United States future president Barack Obama taking office. He is a visionary of change in our society and has addressed in numerous speeches that we are entering into global warming because of our complete dependence on fossil fuels. In Köln, Germany I am creating a sculpture about global warming and the rhythms of our planet. The sculpture will visualize, for the viewer, the fragility of our planet.

Water has also become a major environmental issue in our society. Are you working on any projects concerning water?

I proposed in New York City to create a park where the original water source of the city would be flowing. The sculpture would filter the ancient water and allow the public to engage in the historic streams of the city. I first proposed to expose the natural springs of New York in 1971 for Earth Day.

The early land artists there was nothing ecological at all about their situational events. It was basically after Minimalism, it was getting out of the galleries. Actual nature had not much to do with it… Landscape as real estate perhaps.

Exactly. The essence of my art began in my childhood when I witnessed the destruction of the forest, walking in the Bronx. I was and still am captivated by the magic of the ancient forest. People in the community set fires and destroyed the forest. I realized at that moment that my life would be dedicated to educating people about the value of natural areas within urban environments. My art is consistently about the environment and calling attention to natural events that occur in urban and suburban environments. I see my art as a social discourse within a community. All great public art creates conversation within the community. We have to make a decision about how we create public art. Is public art going to just be a decoration that has very little meaning for the community or will it engage in a dialogue with that community? That is the important difference between my projects and those of the early land artists… I have always interacted with city residents while other artists were involved in creating remote land interventions in places where there was no connection with the community. 

A flight of geese could be celebrated instead of a war as a public event, and hence a living monument…

We should celebrate natural events as opposed to wars. I propose to create within every community public art that celebrates its unique natural history. An early quote of mine stated, “We have landmark buildings, we should create landmark nature within urban and suburban areas.” Since we are actively destroying the world’s natural heritage, I propose that public art be created to celebrate the lost natural environments of our communities.

Public art need not only reference architecture and the urban site, but it can also reference nature. In that sense you were ahead of the landscape architects.
Yes, I was invited to MIT as an artist by the architectural program to set up a dialogue with the architects on how nature could be brought into architecture. Collaboration with the community, architects and landscape architects, is a crucial element of my work and it always has been.

And what evolved from the MIT experience?

I found at MIT an enthusiastic forum of scientists and architects who all wanted to work together with me to create large-scale civic projects. We all worked together on an ecological project for the Charles River.

So the crossover is very important especially in the realm of art at this stage isn’t it?

Over the years I have collaborated with experts throughout the world. I am currently working with scientists and architects in creating a new section for the city of Florence, Italy. We are creating a large environmental sculpture that will bring back the ancient vegetation of Tuscany. The park will be surrounded by the evolution of the city’s human history. Thus the collaboration will bridge the contemporary buildings with their ancient past,

The Time Landscape you created in New York City near Washington Square in New York… How did it all start? How did the project get going? 

I approached the community and said I had an idea to create a historical landscape within the historic boundaries of Greenwich Village which is one of the earlier settlements in New York City. Immediately I got a very strong endorsement from the local residents. Within that community there were two very strong advocates of creating green spaces - Jane Jacobs and Ruth Wittenborn. They had not thought about the idea of history but they wanted to create more green spaces. To me both were pioneers. They were the ones who literally stopped Robert Moses massive highway system from going through Greenwich Village, and they substituted my Time Landscape for what would have been the Moses Highway. The Time Landscape is a historical natural landscape showing the juxtaposition of the indigenous people, and the colonials – how they interacted in the land using the context of a natural flora. 

Is there some reference to the early Dutch settlers in your plantings? 

The Dutch and English colonial diaries provided me insight into the native vegetation on the island in the earliest European period of settlement.

In more recent projects such as the Florida Natural Cultural landscape in Tampa you literally create living landscapes that reference different geological and natural historical eras by planting the various living species from those eras. It all becomes a composite and multi-layered natural history that spans centuries and reflects changes from human intervention in a landscape.

The city of Tampa invited me to collaborate with a landscape architect and architect to develop a public waterfront area for the city. We had numerous meetings discussing with the community and the government about how the area could be made into a unique public space. My contribution was to create an environmental sculpture with a relief mural carved into the concrete sidewalk reflecting the historical evolution of the city. I juxtaposed the original natural landscape with the contemporary skyscrapers. It started with a traditional Spanish garden leading to an ice age landscape. The crucial element is that each one is self-sustaining.

Was that in the Spanish colonial historical area of the city? 

Yes it is connected to the Spanish colonial areas. I paid homage to the early settlers by using the traditional Spanish columns and then creating living versions of them. The sculptural columns were living systems with ancient and Spanish vegetation growing on them thereby becoming a living testament to natural history.
And the walkways are in the forms of leaf shapes… Is that right?

Everything echoes the historical evolution. Each leaf form represents a different forest, or type of vegetation that existed in Tampa. It starts with contemporary and then goes to a prehistoric waterfront landscape where I planted trees that would have grown there several thousand years ago. So each little niche in the leaf, creates another form of the historical landscape… The walkways themselves are not just walkways. They mimic the movement of the trains through the area. They mimic the footprints of the indigenous peoples of the area, the movements of the colonial people. It has multiple layers, and impressions on the land.

Is there a link to the shoreline with the walkways?

It connects directly to the shoreline so that people can walk from the street to the water.

And in at Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany you presented a natural history installation in the park area. 

I was paying homage to Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor. I was inspired by the original fortification of Aachen, which I miniaturized and placed in the forest that would have existed during Charlemagne’s time. Thus the fortification becomes the protector of the forest. 

In the art gallery shows you often reference your natural historical approach as well. You did core samples under the city of Köln, I believe, for instance.

In Köln I was invited to do a commission for the opening of the new Ludwig Museum. I was commissioned by the museum to uncover the geological history of the city. It was a living history, covered by concrete. By drilling in different strategic locations of Köln, I was able to expose this living geological history. Then I laid the corings out like a tablet, revealing the geologic secrets of the city. 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth with apologies to Jules Verne… And your Circles of Time project in Italy, is one of your most innovative and fascinating. Very often in landscape architecture natural features or topography is referenced, but very seldom do they build a narrative out of the intertwining of natural and human history as you have there. Can you comment?

The Circles of Time was an echo of the rings of a tree. It became a metaphor to show the ages of the earth, each ring or circle represents a different time frame. It starts out at the central core with the original forest that existed in Tuscany, then moves to the Etruscan use of the land, where they would plant various herbs and forms of vegetation for their own food sources. The environmental sculpture then continues through the eras of the place. Each stone was laid into the site as if this were a geological history of the area, and the layout mimics the hills of Tuscany. The last ring was in an agricultural area, containing olive trees and wheat fields. The local farmers actually would collect the harvest, thus it became a truly public sculpture.

So these last elements have a function. The olive trees and wheat fields establish a significant role, by linking with the agriculture and the local community.

Exactly. So that is the crucial element for all my projects, that they do not disconnect from or impose on the community. The public art integrates with the city. I was pleased that the workers and community on the Italian project had a picnic party afterwards to celebrate the public art, as they did after my project in Denmark.

Yes, Let's get to Denmark, At Tickon on the island of Langeland in Denmark which has a number of major works by Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and many others artist who work with nature, you made a work that reference that bio-region of the world. Tell me about that…

I spent several months observing the topography of Denmark. I observed ancient burial grounds that contained stone ships. I thought “Why don’t I create a stone ship and instead of paying homage to the humans again, pay homage to the oaks that created the ships.” Again, as with so many human events, the Danes overcut the timber for the ships, so this particular oak used for the Viking ships was almost extinct. The lands became deforested. So here I am, again, within this stone ship planting over one thousand oaks of this endangered species, so now the stone ship instead of protecting a burial ground, becomes a life force, and a protector of the forest of the future of Denmark.

And Alan, did Joseph Beuys influence your work?

I was always a great admirer of his work. I will never forget, we were in Documenta 7 together. I shared a space next to him. Beuys was exhibiting his classic, wonderful Fat Machine and I had my presentation of my Time Landscape that I had just completed construction of in New York. My space in Documenta was a series of cubist photographs representing the ancient forests of New York. He spent much time in my exhibit discussing the ancient trees of New York. I feel we had a very common bond in our understanding of the environment. We also talked about our childhoods and our connection to nature. I think if he had lived we would have had a collaboration.

As the landscape is becoming increasingly transformed, imposed upon, and so on, by human intervention, do you believe the role of the artist, and the public artist, in particular, could be to reinvigorate an idea of nature, as much as the nature itself, within the public art project? Nature is all around us, transformed, but often doesn’t look like nature. Do you think it should look like nature?

I agree with you. That is why I called my work a Time Landscape, because nature is constantly changing. We are going into global warming now, and we had various ice ages. Nature is not a fixed object, its in transformation, existing in a continuum. I select different elements of time in these natural cultural landscapes. I am now working with the City of Florence. The team and I are creating a Time Landscape, visualizing the ancient olive tree. 

What does the word “integration” mean to you?

It means that I am working with the community, the landscape architect, and the architect. Furthermore the art piece itself interacts with the people. 

I am very excited about the la Quinta, California nature trail you created in 1992. You are actually designing and creating the walking paths and routes in the landscape at la Quinta, as well as reintroducing indigenous species. 

The waterworks part of the government had built a one hundred year trench that was intended to prevent flooding on the community. The trench was simply dumped on the desert. The community was up in arms because they could see this dump area from their windows. So they demanded all this material be removed. I was invited to work with the Waterworks people and the community, so this is where the integration comes in. Immediately the Waterworks people said it would cost us over million to remove the rubble. They said, “We can’t do it. Can you come up with a solution?” I came up with using indigenous plants, which needed minimal care. It cost less to do my project and it created a beautiful nature walk. The public schools as well as nature groups are now utilizing the park.

I think of those early bronze tree forms you made that were assemblages of various trees species spliced to form one tree. 

Again it was about endangered trees. Similar to my original statements saying we have to create nature monuments, I thought who are the heroes of our society but trees. So trees are monuments we should pay homage to. The bronze sculptures were all relics of trees that I collaged together. They are exact replicas of fallen limbs, paying homage to the endangered trees of the earth. At an exhibition in the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, I created a series of natural and the bronzed copies or limbs. They were displayed together, the original natural limb or branch was worth 3,000 dollars and the bronze was worth 3 dollars. We must place more value on our natural heritage. 

How important is the visual in these assembled public art landscapes?

I am an artist first, so the visual is important but the message is equally important. It has to be beautiful. A review of my art at the Albright-Knox Museum said that my work is quite beautiful and people enjoy it. So I wrote to the critic who wrote that, and I said “Thank you”. He called me up and said that he meant that as a criticism. And I said, “To me it is not a criticism. Art should bring a sense of life and a positive force in the community.” 

And so a work made at Three Mile Island, Pool of Virgin Earth made at Lewiston, New York…

That was done in the early 1970s, before they understood the technology of how they could seal a toxic area. I worked with scientists on that project. They actually expanded it, and it became a whole landscape. They then grew a forest on the land…

The motor car seems to be part of the problem. There is no accounting for the transport and resource costs for these new developments and no future vision.

I think these are some of the causes that need to be addressed by artists. Walking and observing is one of the crucial elements that I use in my work. My original proposal for the city of New York in 1965 was to create a series of integrated historical landscapes in every community throughout the city, and the would be connected by a path represented by the ancient pathways of pre-European Manhattan. 

And I believe there was a forest that played a major role in your work.

I grew up in the south central Bronx where there was a hemlock forest, which has been totally destroyed. The city is actively trying to restore it.

The forest and nature influenced you positively. Nature can be something that can move us in a positive direction and pubic art projects using nature as well.

Swedish sociologists did a study on urban nature, and they asked the citizens what they liked. And an overwhelming percentage of respondents said, “We want more trees.” This became the essence of my planning projects for Sweden.

Your photo collage works exhibited in art galleries are so different from the works of Hamish Fulton or Richard Long. They aren’t concept-based but are like multiple moments in a walk through a landscape. These are not individual views of a forest interior, but multiple time sequenced views that exist together, like a metaphor for the continuum nature exists in.

That is what I am trying to do. Each one of these collages is not formulated. It is more my body movement in relation to the photograph, my body as it moves through the forest. The photographs are an active element, and present the way I observe the forest. The photographs become cubist photograph of time.

There is a strong link between performance art, with artists like Allan Kaprow, yourself and many others, and an art that embraces ecology. Performance art was very much was one of the keystones for an art working with nature and the pubic earth art that came in the future. 

I agree with you. Kaprow to me was a very important artist because he tried to integrate art back into the community in a performance manner. In some ways, you could say these photo collage landscapes, open the door for people to walk into them. 

So you believe in a social or cultural context for art.

There has to be a social commitment. People have lost the idea that public art means public and that is the crucial element. For my projects to be successful they have to involve the enjoyment of the public, not just the art community. One of the most important comments that was said of my first public project, was a local baker who came from across the street to see my Time Landscape. He said, “I don’t know if this is art, but I like it!”

A lot of your art moves us away from the idea of art as object, even from the idea of image as object in an electronic era of data communication. The image as object does not go much further than the physical object really. Integration in a living community of art and nature, and people in a society could be the real art.

I think for art to function in the 21st century it has to be involved in the community. I call it the markers of time, or markers of understanding one’s environment. The Time Landscape was not conceived as just one element. I wanted it to be integrated throughout the entire city. I wanted it to be a balance between historical nature and vegetation and contemporary architecture – a dialogue and this is what the function of public art is.

C.P. Snow talked about the links between science and art, and their creative connectivity. Do you agree with this?

Absolutely. One of the crucial elements of our society is trying to understand ourselves. Science, like art, is one of the measures of how we become aware of who we are. I utilize that in my work all the time.

I am thinking of the survival of civilizations as Jared Diamond describes in his book Collapse. Don’t we have to consider the relation between nature and society, in the way we build, invent, design our lives.

One of the classical examples, was Ephesus, a city and one of the eight wonders of the world. They had a choice, whether to build more sculptural and religious icons or to clean their harbour. They didn’t clean their harbour. All they did was build more and more religious icons and sculptures. And now historically the city is abandoned and its twenty miles away from the ocean. That is where you have to take time into consideration as you are creating your environmental public artworks. That is why is my recent landscape projects I have been taking into consideration global warming on how I create these landscapes.

With a view to where things will be in the future, and climate, and water.

Water becomes a crucial element in these landscapes as well as the climate change and how it affects the vegetation. I am currently working on a global warming sculpture for the city of Koln Germany. The sculpture captures the past present and future rhythms of our planet.

Can you tell me about your project in Devon at the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World enacted this past summer?

The sculpture involves the head forester of the community as well as the cultural committee. The issue is that they now have a contemporary exotic forest and they want to bring back the ancient indigenous forest. Because my art is about integration I am currently collaborating with a local architect and historian to create an island connecting the ancient human population to the vegetation that exited in that time. I am creating a Celtic icon that will protect and provide space to regenerate the ancient indigenous forest of England. The chief forester is so enthusiastic about the proposal that he wants to integrate into other forest areas as well as into the community schools.

Do you think there is a cultural specificity to the way cultural landscapes are designed, as for instance with the Japanese Garden, which is severely orchestrated and has its own aesthetic. Do you think there is a particular aesthetic with North American land art and landscaping?

I admire the Japanese landscapers. It has a very absolute view of a landscape. I find it to be challenging and magical as it equally would be looking at the French or English landscape, which is very much what the American landscape is about. It is an offshoot of that. In that sense what I do is totally not referential to either Japanese or to the European landscape. What I am using is scientific knowledge to create these landscapes. Science is what dictates the actual landscape and not formal or aesthetic of landscape design. Formal design comes secondary to the actual scientific understanding of the land.

So you would recommend as a strategy for young land and earth artists involved in the public sphere, to try venues outside the art world, natural history museums, botanical gardens and so on and so forth?

All my art involves a clear understanding of environmental issues and their unique relationship with the local community. Within the 21st century we have to redefine the role of the artist as an individual who is actively seeking solutions to improve our world.
Sonfist's art has been exhibited internationally at Dokumenta VI (1977), Tickon in Denmark (1993), and in shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1975), the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y. (1978), the Los Angeles County Museum (1985), the Osaka World's Fair (1988), Santa Fe Contemporary Art Center (1990), the Museum of Natural History in Dallas, Texas (1994). Best known for his Natural/Cultural Landscape Commissions which began in 1965 with Time Landscape in Greenwich Village, and include Pool of Virgin Earth, Lewiston, N.Y. (1973), Hemlock Forest, Bronx, N.Y. (1978), Ten Acre Project, Wave Hill, N.Y. (1979), Geological Timeline, Duisburg, Germany (1986), the Rising Earth Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. (1990), Natural/Cultural Landscape, Trento, Italy (1993), a 7-mile Sculpture Nature Trail in La Quinta, California (1998), as well as Natural/Cultural Landscapes created for the Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa in Florida (1995) and Aachen, Germany (1999). Sonfist is currently working on a three and a half-mile sculptural nature walk in LaQuinta, California, an Environmental Island outside of Berlin, and The Great Bay Fountain for architect Richard Meier in Islip N.Y..

The curator of Earth Artshows at the Royal Botanical Gardens ( this past summer and autumn, John Grande has contributed to many publications over the years including Artforum, Art Papers, Art on Paper, Vie des Arts, Canadian Art, Border Crossings, la Revue Espace, Arts Review (UK), British Journal of Photography and Photoicon (UK), John Grande’s recent publications include Art Nature Dialogues (SUNY Press, New York, 2004, Dialogues in Diversity: Art from Marginal to Mainstream (Pari Publishing, Italy, 2007, and Art Allsorts: Writing on Art & Artists (2008 available at Visit his website

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