A conversation between Joe Scanlan and Julian Heynen
Julian Heynen is currently Artistic Director for Special Projects at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, known as K21, where he has organized exhibitions with Rodney Graham, Bethan Huws, Daniel Richter, Gregor Schneider and Thomas Schutte, among others. Prior to his post at K21, Mr. Heynen was Chief Curator of the Museums Haus Lange and Haus Esters, Krefeld. He was also the curator of the German pavilion for the 50th and 51st Venice Bienale. The 50th was a pairing of Candida Hoefer and Martin Kippenberger, and the 51st combined Thomas Scheibitz and Tino Seghal. This conversation is excerpted from an interview in the exhibition catalogue Passing Through, published by K21 in May 2007.
From the very beginning of K21 I felt that the top floor of the museum, a vast space dominated by a glass and steel dome, is not very suited for showing works from the collection there. Instead I thought that it should be a kind of project room, although a rather big one. Works should be especially conceived for this space. Maybe it was a kind of instinctive reaction that your work came to my mind very early on. We know that huge spaces can challenge good artists in a bad way. There is a temptation to compete with the sheer scale of a space and enlarge ones work accordingly. I think the program of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern sometimes suffers from that phenomenon. Your work, your approach to art is completely different. It is modest, it has a human scale, it comes in through the back door sometimes. I guess I was expecting that you would dive under the obvious choices for such a space, bypass its challenge, so to speak, and emerge from an unexpected spot.
I like the view onto the city from the top floor. It is a nice surprise to enter a museum and move through it only to arrive at a sweeping view of where you’ve come from. If I lived in Düsseldorf I could imagine ending up on the top floor after an hour or so, looking out over the rooftops in the direction that I lived, just gazing into the distance, trying to remember what was in my refrigerator and whether I needed to pick up anything on the way home.
One of your earlier proposals was to create what you called a Zen Arcade. Could you explain some of the ideas behind it, because I think there are some similarities between this earlier approach and Passing Through?
The space is good for imagining where you’re going to be next, imagining someplace else. As soon as you step out of the elevator you know what you have to do: traverse the space and then leave. It’s like an airport that way, you sense that the space is not designed for you in particular but for hundreds and thousands of yous to pass through, like second hands sweeping across the face of a giant clock.
Zen Arcade was the beginning of thinking about how to slow things down and make the rooftop space feel less like running to catch a plane and more like aimlessness. This idea came from an amalgam of influences that all seemed to be interrelated at the time. The first was the double-album of the same name by Hüsker Dü. I listened to it a lot in the early anomie of the Bush presidency, I think I needed to empathize with the sound of being hurled into an abyss, and then having that raw anxiety give way to a childlike wonder at how fucked up things were. That album is a kind of sonic pharmaceutical that makes psychological distress tolerable. I was also researching the early trade show designs of Lily Reich and reading The Dialectics of Seeing, Susan Buck Morss’s book on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project,’ and I was liking the mix of awe and technical sophistication and decay that was happening in all three. The elegant nihilism of strolling under K21’s massive glass dome, being adrift and occasionally distracted by this or that, seemed very appropriate. Plus it’s just a nice phrase, Zen Arcade. I like how it collides meditation and window shopping, two kinds of absorption that have a similarly detached sensation and yet are philosophically opposed.
I like your description of the “elegant nihilism” of strolling under the dome, because it seems to be one of our more common responses to political and social distress today: a musing consumerism, an escape which is hopeless from the outset but nevertheless comforting. You say that meditation and window shopping are philosophically opposed. It seems to me that, in general, you like to investigate such seemingly or real oppositions with your work.
I do. It stems from the basic realization that I often don’t know what I’m doing, or the effect that follows what I’ve done is quite different from what I thought it would be. For me, that core uncertainty is rooted in the dialectic of things I do for money and things I do for art. I have always needed money to live—that is a normal enough—but an invisible prophylactic barrier still exists in art between that necessity and the nobler pursuit of making art. My very first works—the apartment works, the Extended-wear Underwear, the Starter Pot, the Bathroom Floor—were an attempt to create a third place for artworks to inhabit that was informed by economics but not suffocated by them. That is, while the primary motivation of those works was economic—wanting to avoid needing to buy things and therefore wanting to avoid having to have a job in order to be able to afford them—they were rational to the point of absurdity and ended up being more poetic than economic. To this day, whether I am making fake Forsythia or Nesting Bookcases, artificial tears or dirt, economics can be very poetic and poetry can be very profitable. To the point where I don’t worry about the distinction anymore, I just work.
I think this optimism, or freedom, if we can call it that, is most effective for individuals working on a small scale. I’m thinking of Agnes Martin, David Hammons, or On Kawara, artists whose works, in a certain sense, are indifferent to whether they qualify as art or not. A certain amount of seclusion, even solipsism, is essential to not knowing or caring what you’re up to. When the time comes to exhibit this or that work of art, it also helps heighten the contrast between the narrative of one person and the demands of a gallery, or a movie screen, or a city street. I have always been pretty ambivalent about the art world per se, but lately I am very excited about it as a place to stage contrasts in scale and intent. Money and poetry. Control and mobility. Consumption and display.
In some earlier works you reinterpreted the more traditional and critical view on the relationship between ideology and art or economics and art. I am thinking, for example, of the Mike Kelley remake Pay For Your Pleasure (reprise), 1998, or the project of a periodical titled Commerce, 1999, the cover of its first edition modeled on the magazine October. Could you explain your ‘optimistic’ attitude towards art’s existence within capitalism in some more detail, also in relation to the first idea for the roof project in K21 where the art works were balanced against their display as consumer goods? What is the possible advantage of such a commercial display instead of a museum display as we normally have it?
I’m afraid I have to give a long response that in the end will probably still be inadequate, but I want to address the question of art and capitalism as well as possible, because its such a touchy subject. Even I'm uncomfortable making some of the arguments I make. At heart I am an old school connoisseur, perfectly happy to look at Richard Deacon or late DeKooning rather than discuss money and politics. But I am painfully aware that we inhabit a different reality now than in the 1980s, the last great decade of high art connoisseurship, and I believe my arguments need to be proposed: first because I think the plain pursuit of money is a frequent source of great knowledge and beauty, and second because it adds a new facet to the forty-year history of Marxist Institutional Critique that has — lets face it — done very little to change the political economy of art. I have always been invested in art as critique, as a forum for counterproposals to society, to life, to art conventions. But contempt for money is no longer a viable performance of that critique, whether in the guise of a dilettante or a hippy or a tenured professor. It presumes artists are either naive or indifferent to where their money comes from; both are a pretty disingenuous assumptions for espousing Marxism.
I think a better way to deal with capitalism is to inhabit it, to present the pursuit of money as an ongoing process that spins off performances and objects, some tenable, some not. I invent products as a potential source of income and concoct publicity campaigns for them, then circulate them in such a way that they pass through the art world. As they should! Some of my best products are works of art.
This outlook stems from a constellation of influences over the years. The first and oldest influence is the bind that poststructuralist theory and appropriation strategy put art in. On the one hand, poststructuralism destabilized the idea of cultural authority by empowering alternative cultures and alternative points of view. However, at the same time and in nearly the same stroke, appropriation strategy granted art license to pick and choose from those myriad cultures and points of view and assimilate them into high art, reasserting the idea of an ultimate cultural authority with the very artifacts that had challenged it in the first place. So who wins that power struggle—the cultures that design and produce and consume those artifacts, or the culture that selects and preserves them? To paraphrase Machiavelli—whom I quoted in Pay For Your Pleasure (reprise)—art cannot acknowledge the cultural power of consumer society without surrendering that power as well. Appropriation strategy is a losing game. The more things it drags into art, the more power art surrenders.
I want my art to have an air of independence and mobility, even when it’s in a museum. If art must admit that it is just another part of a totalizing consumer society, then its only access to cultural power is to engage that society. To cite another person I included in Pay For Your Pleasure (reprise), Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth: “I was sort of raised all my life to do art . . . I just felt like I should be doing music. It seemed to me that this was really the next step after Pop Art, you see, entering directly into a popular form of culture instead of commenting on it.” It’s about circulating new ideas for consumption. Its about trying to change the direction, or flow, of the political economy of art, trying to design things that begin as art and can flow out into the world as well as end up as art in a museum.
In some ways I find entrepreneurialism more dynamic and patient than art. These days art pretty much runs on an art fair, biennial cycle. But even the most conservative venture capitalist will give an idea five years to pan out. So in that way capitalism can be more accommodating of risk and contingency and loss than art is. Capitalism takes such risks as a matter of course—indeed, as a matter of survival. Joseph Schumpeter said as much in his analysis of business cycles and his concept of Creative Destruction, which is pretty much the capitalist equivalent to the avant garde.
Your rewriting of Schumpeter to apply his theory of Creative Destruction as the essence of capitalism to art is very enlightening, not only because of what you say but also how you arrive at it. You have taken a few basic paragraphs by Schumpeter and then moved, changed, rewritten and added words and phrases to bring it à jour and to make the argument work for art as well. It reads absolutely fluently but your ‘interventions’ are marked in different shades of blue. The effect is that the pages look very beautiful and even without knowing the meaning of the blue typefaces one immediately senses that the text is in flux. It is very clear but not authoritarian, it develops by going along with certain existing ideas, infiltrating them and taking them a step further or aside. You see that what is said is an evolutionary (or revolutionary, if you like) process, the effort of many. The attitude here reminds me of your early dirt works (Potting Soil, 1989-1995l) and how they travel through various situations adapting and changing them each time.
Let’s go from here to the pavilion and the cinema you have created for the space under the dome of K21 and come back to the more theoretical questions later. You already mentioned the first idea for the project, the so called Zen Arcade. Later it somehow changed, things started to move in a very literal way. For a while we referred to your new idea jokingly as strolling architecture.
I wanted to scale down the vast space under the dome, but it didn’t seem dynamic or interesting enough to make a small room within a big room. I experimented on my computer with several kinds of freestanding screens and baffles (I think this was the lingering influence of Lily Reich) which were intended to tame the space by temporarily hiding parts of it from view, like blinders on a horse. This wasn’t very interesting, so I returned to the idea of making a room, but I wanted the room to achieve a kind of freedom, a whimsy, that the museum’s architecture doesn’t have. What if we made a small retail store — 40 square meters or so — but designed it so that the entire thing could go for a walk, just like museum visitors do? That way, as you pass through the store it’s passing through the museum which, being affixed to the earth, is passing through outer space.
The design of the store took some time to make because it has to be lightweight and modular. There were several approaches, some of them quite fancy. In the end you returned to a rather basic but elegant design consisting of only three elements. What were the governing ideas during the design process and how was your cooperation with the architects Dirk Lüderwaldt and Jupp Verhoff?
Some of the initial ideas were fancy indeed. The challenge was always how to make a structurally sound, weatherproof piece of architecture that could also be continually taken apart and reassembled. Not by a crew with heavy equipment, but by one or two people with basic tools—and not in toto, like a tent, but more gradually, piece by piece, without the remaining structure being compromised. It also had to have the ability to change direction, meaning that if you took a section off of the back you could re-attach them in a parallel or perpendicular fashion. I wanted to do this with as few different parts as possible and have each of the parts to be able to fit inside each other, to nest, so that the disassembled pavilion would take up as little space as possible when it was being stored or shipped. Oh, and one last thing: ideally all the parts would overlap and interlock in such a way that no bolts or screws would be required.
Dirk and Jupp and I worked very well together from the start. Our discussions were quite plain in the beginning as we pruned away my more fanciful ideas. What we ended up with was a rectilinear box with three parts: a wall panel, a floor and roof panel, and a joist. It really makes quite an elegant profile, and when you mirror it with an identical structure you get a continuous trapezoidal plane all the way around, from floor to wall to ceiling to wall to floor again. We started thinking of the structure as a struedel, and of each section as a slice. As a modular structure, the interior space of the struedel could be extended indefinitely by lining up slice after slice.
Whats also surprising is the large variety of shapes and movements the store can make. In one direction it can move gradually, if you wish, slice by slice, in seventy centimeter steps. In the other direction it kind of jumps forward, about five meters at a time. But not only that. It can be a simple box with inclined walls, the walls can become independent pillars, and the ground plan can also break up, so to speak, and become an open plan, Miesian in rather unexpected ways. I guess you didn’t calculate the number of possible variations, but it seems rather endless. Like with your Nesting Bookcases you provide the structure of the object; its ‘life’ however is dependent on the individual circumstances and on the ideas and decisions of the people who own them, who use them. What will be the directions for the rearrangements of the store over the eighteen months of the project? Who decides how the store will move?
I like to think that we have designed an alphabet with which people can spell whatever they want. Whether they combine the basic elements to produce logic or nonsense makes no difference to me, I can take pleasure in any outcome because I’m confident there is enough complexity in the basic units that any combination of them will be interesting. As for who and how the pavilion will move, I think we will start out rather conventionally with a few people moving the pavilion one slice at a time, to see how it actually works. We have no idea how long it will take to disassemble and reassemble the parts, or how quickly the pavilion as a whole will progress on its journey through K21.
Even if it works well and seems to be making good progress, there is the subtler question of whether anyone who sees it at any one time will be able to discern what is going on. If that is the case, then I imagine the store movement becoming more responsive and dynamic. It could also be effective for the store to time travel and move in discontinuous ways. One day its in the northeast corner, the next day its in the southwest, without having been visible anywhere in between. I can also imagine it leaving trails of parts as it moves, getting smaller and smaller, like an Apollo rocket losing its stages.
The nice thing about this structure is that it can be both a work of art by Joe Scanlan and a rather anonymous display unit for all kinds of other things. Actually, we used a test section of it as a means to advertise the project and other exhibitions of K21 on this year’s art fair in Cologne. In the beginning the store will be travelling through a museum, through a part of the art world so to speak. But it can also go beyond, into other realms of life. What could be its status there? Do you delegate this question entirely to the various circumstances the structure may find itself in? I mean, it's possible use will be a bit different from your Nesting Bookcases which are more private.
Quite different, although the store has the initial limitation of not being as easily produced and distributed as the Nesting Bookcase. Nonetheless, I would be delighted if the store could take on a life of its own, the same way that the Nesting Bookcase has, compelled by demand and evolving through interpretation and use. I liked the use at the Cologne art fair, and I’d be happy if it had a diverse commercial life. It’s well suited to that kind of experience, the quick up, quick down cycle of art fairs, book fairs, fashion week. I was talking about slowing things down earlier, but maybe the pavilion actually is geared toward speeding things up. I like this idea of the pavilion moving through the world, occasionally framing something and lending it a higher level of appreciation and scrutiny.
The economical framework of your work, the do-it-yourself-ethics are at the base of much of your works and they link them to a specific American tradition, to the 19th century Transcendentalists, or am I wrong here?
I would say you have the right geography but the wrong century. I had a really great writing professor in college, a poet named Edward Lense, and he turned me on to the post-war New England poets, the so called "confessional" poets — Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton — but also Allan Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bishop, who were there in spirit but less in geography. Their search for fulfillment in and of themselves, as individuals, was quite apposite to the "organization man" ethic of corporate America in the 1950s and 60s. What I really like in the poetry, which in many ways presaged Pop and Conceptual Art, was the desire to seek out intellectual insight or even transcendence in mundane things, in all the trappings of a middle class American life that they neither created nor rejected. They just seemed trapped in the sweep of American life then, as if it was some kind of vessel that they could not escape, and so they retreated into their heads and into language as a way of maintaining some distance, some separation. Some of it was genuine, most of it was illusory. But however earnest or fleeting or sardonic their tones of voice, each of them developed an outlook on life that proved quite practical to maintaining their sense of self. That»s what I try to do too.
Even if pure individualism is illusory, I still believe strongly in the performance of that illusion. At this moment the United States is stuck in a loop of competing crowds, with little room left over for loners or skeptics. Belief systems and the crowds that adhere to them are not interested in contradiction or doubt; they are social structures bound by common values and thus averse to individualism. In any crowd, be it religious or cultural or economic, the end of individualism is the end of dissent, and the end of dissent is the end of progress. However fruitful group dynamics are in melding different viewpoints and conflating authority, there is still the presumption that a group somehow arrives at some kind of democratic "fact" that an individual is incapable of. Given the choice between the facts supposedly confirmed by consensus or the illusions of the individual, I find the illusions more liberating.
In that sense I feel some affinity with the Transcendentalists. Walden was about constructing a kind of freedom, one whose value was determined by its quality of life and what Thoreau was willing or unwilling to do to make it possible. Where I would differ with Thoreau — even in the "what if" scenario of Walden -- is that today there is no escape from commerce, there are only different states of it, different degrees of it, to choose from. So I think self-reliance -- or art for that matter — should not be defined as the avoidance of commerce but as the ability to engage it on your own terms. If Thoreau were alive today he wouldn’t be building a cabin in the woods, he would be opening a commercial gallery in Detroit.
JH In a book by art historian Anthony Vidler titled "The Architectural Uncanny" there is a chapter on what he calls “vagabond architecture" where he tries to define a type of architecture or activity which kind of invades the city and tries to undermine its all too rational structures, its day-to-day routine and maybe even the political system it represents. He links this concept to the idea of nomadism as the Other to dwelling in a city and speaks about all kinds of vagabonding groups this side and that side of the law which function as a ‘critique’ of the system. It is an outsider’s position, the position of the rebellious artist etc. It doesn’t necessarily make itself manifest in anything build in the normal sense. Walter Benjamin’s “flaneur” is thus radicalized and transformed into a “practice of the derive” (diverge) which describes and uses the unofficial aspects of the urban environment. Vidler admits that in most cases the transition from theory to practice, from rebellious and possibly romantic vagabonding to planning and building is rather less than satisfying. For him Archigram’s “moving cities” for example are utopian only in a technological sense.
Your store seems to pick up some of the characteristics of such ideas as they were promoted by the Situationists or John Heyduk. Whereas the concept of a vagabonding architecture in conjunction with a vagabonding kind of people wants to undermine the regime of modernist cities, societies, and economies, your concept works more like a fish in water. the store doesn’t place itself outside the given economy, it doesn’t adhere to a ‘revolutionary’ strategy. Instead it tries to fulfill at least a minimum of basic requirements as to usability, technology, economy–and let's not forget beauty.
Knowing that this is your way in general I was hoping for something that would alter the given situation of the space under the dome of K21 in a subtle manner. When I look at the store now I am very happy with the result. You avoided any approach that would compete with the vastness of the space and the stability of the steel and glass construction. Also your work doesn’t make fun of the view over the city in any direct way. Instead the store is dealing with time and transformation. Here change comes about gradually, very gradually.
To put it in a picture, I would say that Passing Through goes along with the given in an intelligent way, taking up its rhythm and then slowly but steadily diverting it — not to something completely different but to something richer than before. The unforeseeable course of the store is an unobstrusive but powerful metaphor for the individualism in relation to the crowd that you were talking about earlier. It is following a risky path because it might be overlooked since only the big bangs come through these days. But maybe in the end it is a vagabond, too, but one that brings about some change through persistence and not through denial, another kind of stranger. Let’s see how it will behave over the next eighteen months. Let’s see how your products and others will look like inside the pavilion. Let’s see how the public will use this structure and the space thus altered. And let’s see if we can make it infiltrate other contexts after. This exhibition doesn’t end with the opening, that’s for sure.