It’s Interesting that You, with Your Values, Would Ask Me a Question Like This
Willie Brisco, Danna Vajda, and Liam Gillick
The following interview took place 27 September 2007 near the United Nations in New York City. Willie Brisco and Danna Vajda came into contact with Liam Gillick while attending unitednationsplaza, an exhibition-as-school in Berlin in October 2006. Later, they were invited to do a of series of interventions in conjunction with Gillick’s lecture series at unitednationsplaza. Through a series of formal alterations of Salon Alemán, Willie Brisco and Danna Vajda re-contextualized the pre-existing work of Ethan Breckenridge and Eduardo Sarabia and provided a secondary dialogue with the lectures upstairs.
Willie Brisco: Liam, your discussion platforms might be a good place to begin this conversation. Since the early nineties, among other things, you have been exhibiting somewhat minimal works made of Plexiglas and aluminum. These works have a literalism to them, yet they have a tendency to operate in a ways that contaminate their objectness. They have an evocative referential significance. But on the other hand, they have what we might call a strained Erving Goffman quality: they look and behave like sculpture in a place for sculpture, so as to allow very different aspects to open up, without fully operating in classical terms. In this way they tend to create a margin in which we are encouraged to think about a text, a historical figure, or some other very un-material set of ideas. Where do you see yourself within this mode of production?
Liam Gillick: You are talking about a relatively small, yet important, aspect of my production. But what you point out accurately describes the ideal conditions under which those works operate. Yet it’s quite hard to sustain this set of conditions. The platforms involve shifting the moment of signification and shifting the moment of attention, trying to offer multiple ways in and out of a set of ideas. This is a process that works best when I remain conscious and skeptical about my own production.
When I began my ongoing process of writing, mak- ing things, organizing exhibitions, and collaborating, certain people were quite anxious about whether the notional art component would be readable and how it might function as a semi-autonomous element within the culture. Even people who grew up within a late modernist trajectory were concerned as to whether or not you could function as an artist with these multiple roles and still try to sustain the potential of semi-autonomous work. I was always convinced that within the straightforward functional art context, the readability of art is the last thing you need to worry about, because art—anything that resembles art or functions as an art object within the cultural context—will tend to get privileged by the dominant system. However, the nomination of something as art retains a serious potential that must be examined—it can provide us with a series of implicated objects separate from the relativism of the everyday and specific to the relativism of the art context. The difficult aspect of cultural work is sustaining a critical relationship to production rather than agonizing over simple commodity relations.
I tend to work on many things simultaneously. I am generally trying to sustain multiple entry points, multiple ways of thinking, and multiple ways of operating within the proviso that there is some conscious recognition of the potential of the art object as a “critical exception” that exemplifies “difference.” This crosscutting allows you to retain a degree of criticality without creating didactic or overdetermined structures that merely reinforce what the dominant culture already knows.
Danna Vajda: But during your lecture series Five Short Texts on the Possibility of Creating an Economy of Equivalence, at unitednationsplaza in Berlin, there was a point at which you said you were “trying to get to the point” in a clear direct way. You were actually rather explicit about having clear aims, which is an interesting shift.
Gillick: But I was not attempting to resolve a working methodology with that series of lectures. They were not so different to how I would normally operate. I decided to return to a number of concerns during the week and felt that if I kept repeating these aims it might be possible to work out which ones had potential. This constant return was built into the structure of the lectures and by day five almost impossible to sustain. At the end I was supposed to be able to repeat all the key points of the first four days and also deal with the themes of day five. I realized that this was nearly impossible, but the process had been productive. I wanted to try and re-signify and re-expose certain middle ground tensions within the culture. I also wanted to question the future potential of discursive models of practice in light of a number of “returns” and “emergences,” such as the war in Iraq, the consolidation of production in China, the edge of Europe, and the decline of the postwar social model. All of this is related to a potential book provisionally titled Construcción de Uno. As with each major body of work I have developed in the past, I am looking for a new methodology rather than a new form. Construcción de Uno has been connected to the idea of trying to get a grip on some slippery elements concerning certain shifts in European culture and their effects on recent modes of production. It has therefore emerged gradually, slowly revealing the ideas necessary to develop the text. The whole project and the lectures are rooted in an examination of the notion of production and the social in primarily northern European social democracies. A lot of the source material is derived from Brazilian academic papers on industrial production methods in Sweden, but the scope of the lectures reaches into many assumptions about how things accumulate value within so-called social democracies.
In Berlin, I wanted to introduce the idea that there are a lot of hanging concepts that need to be addressed in order to question and sustain a discursive model of practice. By reintroducing multiple aims repeatedly, I wanted to make sure key points remained hanging in the air rather than lingering just out of reach.
Vajda: To what extent are the material artworks reliant on your books, lectures, and discursive activities that run in parallel to them?
Gillick: Not all of them are reliant in a direct way. With many of the large-scale public artworks I have produced, the question is “Who are the primary people who will have to deal with this work on a day-to-day basis?” There will be people who care and others who don’t care. It is reasonable to suppose many people will not care about the work at all. I am interested in the gaps between constructed ideology and visible form, and I think that this is achieved through finding various ways into an idea, some of which are not physically part of the nominated work itself. When there’s no clear anecdotal narrative within the work, there are other traces existing just alongside. The books, lectures, and discussions fulfill this aspect of the work.
Yet even within material terms, the aluminum and Plexiglas works, for example, have always carried precise reference points. I am aware that Plexiglas is the material of riot-shields and bulletproof screens in banks. Aluminum and Plexiglas are the materials of nightclub interiors, corporate signage, and the iPhone. These are provisional, speculative, and extremely loaded non-fundamental materials with at least a split function that project a contemporary value matrix. I’m using them because they’re material signifiers within the culture.
It’s the same with my use of glitter. When I travel somewhere, I ask people “Where’s the local glitter factory?” and no one can ever tell me because, in fact, very few people know where glitter comes from. At one point I found out that glitter, pound-for-pound, is a drug-like commodity. You can go to Vienna, buy three pounds of glitter for the same price as a tiny vial in Stockholm. So if you just shifted vast quantities of glitter from Vienna to Stockholm and sold it again you could make millions. It has a very underexploited commodity status. Part of this is to do with the fact that very few people can ever tell me if glitter is made by Chinese children or is a by-product of the arms trade. Maybe it is an innocent material made by well-paid artisans. To this day, I’ve still never been to a glitter factory. I can’t tell you if people are happy in glitter factories, whether glitter factories are organized collectively or a “Glitter Board” regulates them. My use of glitter exposes these ideological complications along with an acknowledgement of modernist art history and a fairly pragmatic task: cleaning the floor with whisky or vodka mixed with glitter. Once you have done this, you can see where the floor has been cleaned and labour is exposed. The works are a cumulative negative: so if cleaning is a reductive act, then cleaning with glitter is an additive reduction. At the Palais de Tokyo, in 2005, I just spread vast quantities of red glitter with no cleaning, but, of course, red glitter is red snow, and red snow is what you get in times of revolution. My work is often about defining the softer, unclear spaces within the social context that were intended to ameliorate conditions. Right from the early nineties, I was very interested in the idea of a middle ground or what politically was called the “Third Way” because I found it a crucial and dangerous area of political development that was not being addressed.
Now I am increasingly interested in the question of the “postwar” as a completed historical period in Europe. This is concomitant with an examination of the history of the postwar as an era of realignment within European culture and the subsequent neo-liberal attacks on the progressive legacies of postwar social structure. The revisions that came about in the 1980s and afterward toward the more neo-liberal situation are deeply complicated. Consider the example of getting a telephone in England. In the 1970s, it was a major pain in the ass. This is a problem, because the telephone system was a state-run monopoly that was highly unionized and, therefore, socially correct. I started from a position of not necessarily having a very sentimental relationship to state-run bureaucracy. But I became very interested in the way the neo-liberals first went after industries that were at the interface with the people. It was hard to find someone who thought the phone company was efficiently run. So how do we proceed, and what aesthetic traces are left in the culture from this process of strategic privatization embedded in populist strategy?
What I am trying to do through the work is look at some of these processes: see how they function, how they collapse, and how they leak into the forms that surround us. But it is not a consistently stable mode of practice. I reject a lot of late modern and postmodern techniques such as working in series, explaining an idea through the work alone or making references to older art. There are such allusions in the work, but very few didactic or transparent references.
I felt instead that it might be useful to address these things from various perspectives simultaneously. The art context is one of those positions, of course. I wanted to examine the idea of the artist as one who functions in society as particular and separate from certain relativist value systems yet engaged with the processes of the everyday. That is probably the influence of Lawrence Weiner; his desire to function as an artist within society has had a strong effect on my practice. The important point for me is to get as close as possible to the complex reality of our mediated middle ground without slipping into a mirroring procedure.
For the ongoing exhibition project Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie, curated by Nav Haq and Tirdad Zolghadr at Platform Garanti, in Istanbul, I added an abstracted yet rhetorical background for a precise curated presentation. I think that is what I can be useful for—the articulation of a series of positions, a framework for a project. This too is an extremely important aspect of the work.
Vajda: I suppose that’s one place where I’ve always been mistaken about your work. I’ve often thought of it as an analytic mimesis of processes or positions, as opposed to a malleability that actively works within particular constraints, pushing out the edges of artistic practice.
Gillick: But you are right, sometimes I am trying to suck everything into a condensed core. I also understand why you use words like “pushing out,” but I’m also trying to gather things in, or come up with super-simple solutions in architectural and social contexts. Solutions that other people cannot propose because they do not function as cultural workers but have other defined limits to their job. This is a simultaneous pushing, too. On a conceptual level, there is an expanded sensibility at work here, but it is combined with a deep pragmatism. A lot of the way I function on a daily basis is to do with learning and performing a task. Not necessarily in a context where someone says I need X or I need Y, but towards the production of a semi-autonomous series of spaces and events.
I’m very influenced by applied art. I take pleasure in having the opportunity to compose a thousand names on a wall in collaboration with a curator. In this case, we are talking about a conceptual projection, rather than a generalised pushing into society. Pushing implies that there is a clear direction, so I think projecting might be a better word for my practice. Projecting out in a way that can illuminate parallel social processes. In Vancouver I am working in relation to a new building. The idea is to see how far you can go in terms of putting a text on a building that exposes the complicated relationships generated by the arrival of a new tower in the context of that Vancouver today.
Vajda: I spoke with Barbara Cole of Other Sites (an independent art commissioner in Western Canada) about this forthcoming public artwork of yours in Vancouver. One of the things she mentioned was that the site of the work might be one of the last buildings in a string of developments leading up to the Olympics. There is something within the text that speaks to the notion of the aspirational, which of course is a key component of how development is projected into society.
Gillick: The work comprises a text repeated on two sides of the façade of a tall tower on the waterfront in Vancouver. The text reads “Lying on top of a building the clouds looked no nearer than they had when I was lying in the street.” It is a self-conscious description of the complexity of aspiration, a perceptual truism, a functional paradox, and a wry joke. The work indicates something that people haven’t talked about much but is definitely in my practice. There is often a humanist melancholy that leaks through. This is despite everything I said earlier about being someone who tries to examine and propose interstitial structures that fluctuate between other ideological set-ups toward a body of work that doesn’t really generate autonomous ideological set-ups but softly comment and sits in parallel to social structures instead.
This project is an example of a punctuation moment within my practice. With public buildings, people often ask me for an abstracted artwork with an optical or sensory effect. In the case of Vancouver, the work is more self-critical than purely effective but is also deeply conscious of the project context. The work describes a moment of intensity and lack, connected to the old-fashioned idea of trying to imagine a better place. Trying to create tension and expose antagonisms that have been washed over. Yet the work will undoubtedly be spectacular, in the sense that from two directions people will see this repeated super-self-conscious statement running half way up an enormous glass tower. It is a work that is made specifically for this context and none other. In this way it is an exception and typical of my approach to the specificities of the social.
Brisco: This grand lack in the work admits the potential of failure, but you’re part of a group of artists who brought the idea of utopia into focus or attention. How do you see that as having been played out?
Gillick: If you remember the text I gave at Vassar College at the beginning of the whole utopia discussion, prior to the opening of Utopia Station at Venice in 2003, I was strongly against the idea of using that word at all. I viewed the word utopia as a destructive thing within the art context. I grew up in an environment where any attempt to make anything better was dismissed as utopian. People might say: “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was equal, but that’s just a utopian dream? Wouldn’t it be nice if that great big concrete housing project worked, but that was a utopian idea too?” Well no, often it didn’t fail because it was a utopian idea but because real people in the real world, who believed in certain ideas, tried to stop these projects and disrespected the potential of the people forced to live in cartoonized versions of progressive modernism. You have to be careful when artists talk about utopia. It often merely masks the political battles of the recent past and creates an afterimage of delusion and corrupted desire.
Vajda: Isn’t “well it was too utopian” as simplistic as “certain outside forces had invested interest in seeing it fail, and they succeeded in that”? Doesn’t this partially dismiss that things deteriorate from the inside as well?
Gillick: Well in the of case of Utopia Station, the whole project was a very strange melding of Hans Ulrich’s essential progressive liberalism and his very unique brand of super-specific libertarianism and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s communalism. Like Dan Graham, I’m a European Socialist. I believe that people need to get together, organize, and make things work better. The notion that social structures have an essential entropic tendency is half true, but we have never been allowed to see this effect free from the push of right wing ideology. There is a pragmatism in my work, which made the whole utopia project very difficult for me. I spent a lot of time skulking in the background. I was happy to take part and in this case merely be pragmatic. So I designed the seating. Realizing that no one had any intention of making a really new structure but instead were talking about the poetics of a “positive failure.” I thought I should at least give us somewhere to sit while we gently expired.
Brisco: So...September 11th: was it an inside job?
Gillick: It is interesting you ask me a question like this and yet you don’t ask yourself the same question. I noticed that [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical and discursive technique was very similar to a middle-European academic from the 1970s. It was all about saying, “It’s interesting that you, with your values, would ask me a question like this.”1 Exactly. So it all depends how far away from the event you are in terms of the time space continuum. In global human terms, yes, of course, it was an inside job by the entire planet. Yet as you get closer and closer to the actual event, it becomes more and more clear there were moments of responsibility and there were moments where responsibility was overwritten by nationalism, superstition, and despair.
- Two weeks prior to this interview, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a controversial appearance at Columbia University, outlining his positions on a variety of social and diplomatic issues. Introducing the Iranian president, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, confronted him with a series of questions and talking points that are being discussed with respect to Iran in the American press. The rhetorical turn used in Ahmadinejad’s response to Bollinger is the same as that referenced by Gillick.
About the Authors
Willie Brisco is the current director of Galerie Werner Whitman, Montréal. Working as an artist, curator, and writer, he has produced numerous objects, exhibitions, and events. Forthcoming exhibitions include Jerry Zaslove: Pictograms and Pictographs from an Anarchist Archive, Noh Forest, and Premise Beach.
Danna Vajda is an artist based in Montréal. Her practice with deals the erosion and reconstruction of meaning produced by visual culture and the act of representation through images and text. She has exhibited in Vancouver, Montréal, Berlin, and New York.
Liam Gillick has played a central role in the contemporary art world through numerous collaborations with other artists, writers, architects, and designers. Recently JRP/Ringier published a monograph of his work Factories in the Snow and a collection of his writing, Proxemics: Selected Essays, 1988–2006. Central to his practice has been the publication of a number of books that function in parallel to his built work. He has also produced a number of large works in architectural contexts.