Six Recent Published Writings

by Joe Scanlan

First published in Aprior no. 17, Brussels and Ghent: Aprior, 2009.

The place was hot, the place was packed,
The noodles cold, the china stacked.
Democracy Cutie, when did you come along?

We put on glasses, and changed our looks,
And left our lovers, and picked up books.
Democracy Cutie, where do you belong?

Democracy Cutie, I’m so glad you came,
It’s why I wrote this song.
Democracy Cutie, I agree with what you say!
Have you known it all along?

Plans were laid, and plans were blown,
And shells were cracked, and seeds were sewn.
Democracy Cutie, her seeds were oblong.

People came, and people went,
And trust was shared, and care was spent.
Democracy Cutie, don’t you love this song?

Democracy Cutie, I’m so glad you came,
You’re coming on strong.
Democracy Cutie, I agree with what you say!
By the way—are you wearing a thong?

Walls were scaled, and frames were broke,
And halls were trashed, and cigs were smoked.
Democracy Cutie, where’d you put that bong?

A bearded man, with bearded thoughts,
Poured bearded wisdom from bearded pots.
Democracy Cutie, why’s your face so long?

Democracy Cutie, I’m so glad you came,
Despite the mood of the throng.
Democracy Cutie, I agree with what you say!
Why’d it take so long?

We rubbed our eyes, and craned our necks,
And stretched our legs, and cashed our checks.
Democracy Cutie, where did we go wrong?

The place was cool, the lights were dim,
The overworked chef was sleeping in.
And Democracy Cutie was long, long gone.

Democracy Cutie was long, long gone.
Democracy Cutie was long, long gone.

How to Do Things With Words - image 2

First published in The Studio Reader, edited by Michelle Grabner and Mary Jane Jacob, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Under the careful hand of the artist, the studio can be a magical place where materials, images, and even people come to life. Pygmalion’s statue, Frankenstein’s monster, Rrose Selavy and Cindy Sherman are but four examples of the primordial power of the artist’s lair.

Donelle Woolford is another entry to this line of avatars, an artist spawned from an admixture of postcolonialism, narrative license, craftsmanship and branding. She was originally employed as my studio assistant, where she stumbled onto a wooden collage that had an eerie resemblance to Cubism. Technically she was making the collage for me — it was, in the parlance, a “work for hire” — but it seemed better suited to her character than mine. One work led to another, a point of view and a personal history took shape, and in three short years she was a full-fledged artist working in a studio of her own.

In the 1990s, a generation of artists came to be known as having “post studio” practices because they did not make art by conventional means. Rather, they made work only when someone invited them to do so, usually in a faraway city. Their practice consisted of visiting the location, conceiving of an artwork, and then having the logistical expenditure of producing the artwork (or some version of it) be assumed by the host institution. In such an environment, the studio came to be seen as an anachronism ill-suited for the “just in time” production economics of the international biennial circuit. The studio was a place where paintings and objects got made, pejorative terms if there ever were ones.

In this decade, a few artists like Pawel Althamer, Tino Sehgal, Artur Zmijewski and myself are trying to rejuvenate the studio as a site of production by enlisting others to inhabit it for us, thereby outsourcing the labor of making art as well as the burden of authenticity. In what could be called a post post-studio practice the idea of the studio artist makes a comeback, only now the artist is a paid actor performing on a set that looks just like an artist’s studio. If the work that artist makes (or pretends to make) is good, then it doesn’t matter whether the artist is real or not. Nor does it matter if the artist’s vital statistics are borne out in the work they produce.

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First published in the Sol LeWitt: 100 Views exhibition catalogue published by MassMoCA and Yale University Press, 2009.

In April of 2008, within a larger article in Artforum on the subject of art and money, I expressed admiration for Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, works of art that exist as ideas until someone wants to produce them locally at their own expense.(1) In any wall drawing the network of idea, institution, local draftsmen, and LeWitt (by proxy, if not in spirit) determines how the work will be materially produced, all the while that the idea (for example, Wall drawing 69: Lines not long, not straight, not touching, drawn at random using four colors) hovers in the vicinity of the actual drawing without ever becoming fixed by it. LeWitt’s instinct for how an artwork might “be” in the world proposed a fundamental shift in how and where it might be produced, as well as the minimum form of existence it needed to achieve in order for us to assign it value. Whereas the value of most artists’ works still depend on the quality of their personal output, the value of the wall drawings is that they can be made by many people in different places simultaneously and repeatedly. Thus, like the best aspects of the information economy, LeWitt’s wall drawings collect and make sense of diverse points in space without privileging any one of them, creating art (and meaning) out of the relations between things rather than out of the things themselves.

This is not to say that LeWitt’s wall drawings are produced collaboratively, however much agency their producers have; nor is it to suggest that the process of making a wall drawing is democratic, that the people with pencils who are physically drafting the image are somehow equal to the artist. In writings and interviews throughout his career, LeWitt was quite clear: he appreciated the work that everyone did, he but didn’t think the people who made his art were necessarily artists, nor did he think that “anyone” could make his work. LeWitt also wrote that his ideas were based on his experiences and that they were subject to change as his experience changed. It’s fair then to think that his authority in the wall drawings grew as he gained fame as an artist and, over time, came to realize that unequal power relations were a necessary dynamic for ensuring their sublime commitment and beauty. I also suspect LeWitt shared Max Weber’s view of the division of labor, meaning that he did not see disparities in responsibility or status as unjust; rather he saw them as a way of recognizing and protecting the particular credit that each participant was due. Serving as pencil sharpener every day is not an occasion for bitterness or envy. Rather, it is an opportunity to be the best pencil sharpener you can be until the day you get asked to draw some lines — at which point you are free to accept or reject that opportunity, because the dynamic allows even a “lowly” pencil sharpener the illusion of being able to choose one’s station in life. Consequently, whatever surplus distinction might accumulate in the process of making a wall drawing gets distributed by osmosis — the communal glow that equalizes diverse people who are engaged in benevolent work.

Still LeWitt’s attenuated version of authorship did not preclude the possibility that all the participants could follow all the guidelines and still make an artwork that wasn”t “good enough.” Even though this seldom occurred in LeWitt’s lifetime, it is fair to wonder how could it happen at all. Isn’t the premise of the wall drawings that the idea produces the work, meaning that if everyone performs in accordance with the idea’s parameters a satisfactory artwork should result? Apparently not, as was the case after Wall drawing 271 (1975) was first executed at Dia:Beacon in spring 2007, after which the sandpaper and rollers were brought back out, the wall roughed up and repainted, and the Black circles, a red grid, yellow arcs from four corners, blue arcs from the midpoints of four sides was drawn all over again. Why? Because Sol said so.

I can only conjecture how this rare and unexpected fiat affected the otherwise rosy social scenario of making a wall drawing, to which the increasingly hagiographic treatment of LeWitt’s draftspersons attests.(2) Perhaps LeWitt’s fiat was a way of countering a burgeoning sentimentality around his work, a way of complicating the caricature of the artist as the quintessential nice guy. Given his elegant taste for mischief, maybe LeWitt rejected a wall drawing from time to time just to keep everybody on his and her toes. More likely, given his love of music, I would aver that LeWitt thought that a group functions best not only when it comes together and tolerates as many different participants as possible, but also when one of the participants has the wisdom and the courage to tell the rest of the group what to do.

(1) See “Modest Proposals,” Artforum (April, 2008): 312–19.
(2) It would seem that the desire to organize survey exhibitions of LeWittt’s wall drawings engenders a desire to document their various drafters over the years as well. See, for example, Susanna Singer, ed., Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings, 1968–1984, exh. cat. (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1984); Sol LeWitt: Twenty-Five Years of Wall Drawings, 1968–1993, exh. cat. (Andover, Mass.: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993); and Sol LeWitt, exh. cat. (A Coruña, Spain: Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza, 2002). This trend is unique to the wall drawings as compared to, say, the collective fabricators of Michael Asher installations over the past four decades or, more recently, the collective participants of a Relational Aesthetics event. It is even unique within LeWitt’s oeuvre, since no has yet endeavored to catalogue the names of LeWitt’s sculpture fabricators or printers. The exceptional character of the desire to document workers using pencils to make art, but not workers using machines, deserves greater analysis than space here allows.

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First published in the Bulletin of the Yale University Art Gallery, 2009.

1. The poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller used to keep a batch of rotten apples under the lid of his writing desk.

2. Whenever his thinking became impacted he would lift the lid, breathe in the sweet brown rot and his mind would loosen up again.

3. Marcel Duchamp performed a similar service with a few rotten apples of his own: a urinal, a snow shovel, a bicycle wheel.

4. Whenever art has felt itself in a quandary, unsure of its social value or what (if anything) should happen next, a whiff of the ready-mades has made things possible again.

5. The problem now is that the ready-mades are no longer rotten.

6. The original ones — whatever that means — actually did rot, that is, they served their purpose and were discarded and new rotten apples took their place: a stuffed goat, a can of excrement, some cowboys.

7. As is often the case — and, in fact, as is the modus operandi of art museums — at different times it has been useful to rescue these objects from destruction.

8. The conflict between the museological desire for permanence and the creative catalysis of decay has animated sculptural practice ever since.


10. John Cage once described the role of silence in his work by saying that it was like a glass of milk: you need the glass, and you need the milk.

11. For Cage and his collaborators, this way of paying attention had a political dimension in that it minimized the importance of the artist at the same time that it welcomed coincidences from the wider world.

12. It was and is fundamentally egalitarian to hold that because a car horn and a French horn both make sounds, both are capable of being musical.

13. We should apply this outlook to the production of artworks!

14. If every bit of matter in the universe could have a turn at being art, then the conflict between permanence and destruction would become irrelevant, since all matter at all times would be on its way to becoming an artwork and all artworks would be on their way to becoming something else.

15. We could put to rest, forever, the boring question of whether something is art or not; instead, we would only have to wonder whether it was art at that moment.

16. Our only concern as artists would be to keep things flowing and to invent new images and forms for everything to flow through so that eventually those new images and forms could enter the flow, too.


18. IKON EARTH is one such invention, a brand of potting soil that was produced in Birmingham, England, under the auspices of the Ikon Gallery.

19. The idea was to collect precise categories of postconsumer data — i.e., garbage — from the shopkeepers of Birmingham, pass it through the Ikon Gallery as if the museum were a kind of refinery, and then sell it back to the people of Birmingham as an exclusive local brand.

20. The price was £7.99 for a six-liter bag, pretty expensive for potting soil but pretty cheap for a work of art — especially one that, if properly exhibited, could produce gladiolus or Brussels sprouts.

21. When the Yale University Art Gallery purchased twenty-nine bags of IKON EARTH through my Web site, I needed to get some palettes on which to make the shipment. In the pages of the Uline catalogue I found a shipping palette that was made of recycled materials. When the palettes arrived and I began stacking the artworks on to them, a beautiful thing happened: I noticed that both items had, at other times, taken the form of other things: a wall, a digital file, a fish, a tree. And now here they were, fixed in the exact moment that their material trajectories were overlapping in space.

22. Before the museum placed its order, the materials that make up Homage to John Cage existed, but Homage to John Cage itself did not exist.

23. Things had to happen in a certain way in order for the artwork to become visible.

24. It was like a glass of milk.

How to Do Things With Words - image 4b

Joe Scanlan, IKON EARTH (Homage to John Cage), 2007. Pay Dirt potting soil, flexible inks on polyethylene and Ziploc closure, and compressed wood palettes, dimensions variable. Yale University Art Gallery, The Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund, 2008.82.1

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First published as “The Brutal Truth” in frieze no. 122 (April, 2009): 28–29.

In spirit and in style, the architecture movement known as Brutalism has always been a hard sell. The origin of the term is contested. Most link it phonetically and conceptually to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles (1955) and its exuberant demonstration of béton brut (raw concrete), but eminent historian Rayner Banham traces the term to a single private residence in Uppsala, Sweden, by Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm in 1950. What is not contested are the blunt impressions that nearly all brutalist buildings impart on the senses, and over the years supporters have proffered adjectives like ‘frank,’ ‘honest,’ and ‘forceful’ in an attempt to nuance what Brutalism is. James Stirling — an early and influential contributor to the style through his and James Gowan’s designs for Ham Common and Leicester University — ultimately shunned the term if for no other reason than it was bad marketing. Why parade under a banner that could do little but scare clients away?

Apparently Stirling knew a little about branding and human nature since, fifty years later, it would seem that Brutalism is what Brutalism does. In general, brutalist buildings are defined by a preference for the surface textures and forms of poured concrete, and for the ‘truthful’ way that the construction process gets inscribed in the surface of the building itself. The spaces between these inscriptions are usually dealt with through more planar materials — glass, steel, brick, weatherproof wood — that let in light, humanize the scale, and knit the concrete skeleton together. Another general trope of brutalist architecture is that the entrance is set back within the structure itself, meaning that you have to penetrate deep into the building’s terrain before you can open a door. The overall psychic effect is that you don’t enter a brutalist building so much as hike into it with some trepidation, a consequence of having to navigate the layout while massive chunks of architecture loom overhead. As such, every aspect of a de rigeur brutalist building asserts its role in the building’s essential structural grammar and in relation to the movement of our bodies through its space.

It should come as no surprise, then, that seminal brutalist buildings are in flux all across the United States and Europe, with Kallman, McKinnell & Knowles’ Boston City Hall (1969) the most spectacular example recently to have worn out its welcome. Two more icons of the movement, Peter and Alison Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens (1970) and Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale University (1963) are currently experiencing fates as polarised as their designs.

The Art and Architecture Building, now Rudolph Hall, has just emerged from a $120 million renovation by Gwathmey Siegel Architects, who rescued most of the interior’s notorious complexity from four decades of ad hoc abuses and lovingly restored the building’s taut exterior. The eight-storey building has thirty-seven separate levels and demands constant awareness to move through; the inattentive do so at their peril. All levels are connected by an interlocking network of balconies, stairs and ramps — some cloistered, others voyeuristic—and are organized around a central atrium/gallery rimmed by a low rise giving way to seven wide, deceptive steps that descend to the bottom of the gallery floor. (Unfortunately, after years of unwitting visitors tumbling into this ‘pit’, current safety guidelines dictated that the floor be leveled off.) Externally, the gallery is represented by a cubic volume of glazing that appears to hang, lantern-like, from two gigantic concrete post and lintels, one rising eight storeys to span the top of the building and the other penetrating the structure at the fourth floor. A third lintel — a.k.a. the fifth floor—traverses the space between these two beams, appearing to hang from the larger and rest atop the smaller in a virtual circus act of the architectural principles of tension, compression and cantilever.

Robin Hood Gardens is an East London public housing tract consisting of two concrete apartment slabs standing at off angles to each other with a primeval park pinned between, like a cyborg claw presenting a robin’s egg. The iconic slabs — one six storeys, the other eight — are made visually distinct by pre-cast concrete mullions of varying length that tie the windows and balconies together in a complex, horizontal rhythm, a rhythm magnified by the blocks’ ambling single and double-jointed floor plans and by lift silos that stand partially detached from each end. These silos connect to open-air avenues that traverse the entire length of the blocks, making the entrance to each duplex apartment along the walkway a kind of front door on a pedestrian street. In theory these ‘streets in the sky’ would offset the alienating vertical grid of modernist apartment towers by encouraging a neighborhood effect: a place where children could safely meet and play while their parents chatted at one another’s front doors. Modeled after the ideas of Le Corbusier and their own unbuilt proposal for Golden Lane Estate (1952), in practice the concept failed to foster the depth of social interaction necessary for community to take hold, instead giving way to a downward spiral of crime and neglect. Last spring, Robin Hood Gardens failed to earn listed status with English Heritage and was slated to be torn down. The verdict was temporarily stayed by culture secretary Andy Burnham, but even he and a phalanx of famous architects (Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and Peter Cook) couldn’t save the complex, at least not at the time of this posting.

For me the question isn’t whether Robin Hood Gardens should be saved. You need only stand on the Blackwall DLR platform and turn 360 degrees to see that once something’s gone, its gone. Compared to the utterly dispensable postmodern towers going up all around, Robin Hood Gardens looks like Petra. Of course it should be saved! The deeper question is: should the intellectual curiosity and leisure capacity of a building’s inhabitants determine whether its design is sublime or cruel? No. That would mean surrendering our capacity to see beauty in a building simply because its parti failed, or caused pain.

In her seminal article ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’ art historian Claire Bishop argued that some kind of rub or conflict is necessary in order for us to be meaningfully engaged with a work of art. If an artwork presents an affront to our codes of taste or scholarship or inclusiveness, then our capacity for reconciling that challenge is what engenders our stake in the work, a condition that follows from the tenets of participatory democracy and the willing involvement of its citizens. The ethical question that would seem to follow from Bishop’s argument, and one that certainly haunts the legacy of Brutalism, is at what point the knowledge gained from aesthetic violence is not worth the pain it inflicts, especially when the people benefiting from the knowledge are quite removed from the people experiencing the pain. Still, I can’t help wondering how the unintended violence of Robin Hood Gardens differs from the premeditated violence of Rudolph Hall. Aside from the obvious discrepancies between each building’s ‘victims’ — the reluctant clients of a cash-strapped public housing council and the willing customers of a prestigious architecture school — it would seem the difference hinges on what matters more: success or altruism. When it comes right down to it, Robin Hood Gardens promised to help people but didn’t; Rudolph Hall promised to hurt people and did. Were it otherwise, the fates of the two buildings might be reversed.

First published (anonymously) in the visitors guide to Beaufort 03, a summer group exhibition in Ostende, Belgium, 2009.

It is impossible
to capture
a sculpture
in words trailing
down a page.
Even only three —
I see it — can be
and too many.
infamous particle,
whereby determining
its location
ruins knowing
its velocity,
discovering a
sculpture means
closely held
for the promise
of something

If one day
you happen
a stainless
steel gazebo
woven into
the Belgian
dunes, or
a lovely
the storeys
of Dordrecht,
you will have lost
the assumption that
until that moment
you did not know
they existed.
your capacity
for distraction
will be made

You could
continue on to
the beach,
stick in hand,
or on down
the street
in search of
a wireless
signal. Afterall,
and the North Sea
have more
roles to play.
But however much
today’s headlines
trouble us,
however much
the North Sea
surprises us,
each moment
they present
is expected
and thus
a routine

As I pick
my way
down the
undulating path
I repeatedly
lose direction,
the mesh
gazebo rising
and falling
its many
soft horizons.
I see the sea
through its
moiré walls.
I am hypnotized.
In this condition
I realize that
if I walk ever
and slower, and
slower, my
will never

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