Fillip 20 — Fall 2015

Social Networks and Soft Crimes
Paul Branca and Jesi Khadivi

Two small paintings now hang above an antique secretary in my Berlin office: a severe rendering of the word “ICH,” its characters so compressed that it veers toward abstraction, followed by an emphatic full stop against a cadmium red ground. I “claimed” these works by removing them from the wall of my former project space, Golden Parachutes, during the vernissage held for the American artist Paul Branca’s oil painting distribution project, Couch Crash, in 2010, then promptly installed them in my apartment behind the gallery while coworkers wrapped paintings for visitors. For a brief moment, before Branca’s friends descended on Golden Parachutes to begin removing the paintings on a first-come, first-served basis, the twenty-two individual canvases combined to form a muddled German sentence (which Branca had assembled using Google Translate), punctuated by three process-driven works made from the leftover oil paint. While the lettered canvases were given away, the three geometric abstractions were available for sale: an experiment in making the gallery-collector system support another kind of artistic economy. Like a number of Branca’s projects, Couch Crash was a multivalent exploration of the social function of the artist in a neoliberal economy, as well as a genuine attempt to create new systems for the exhibition, circulation, and sale of painting. Continuing a dialogue that Paul and I initiated when preparing for the project in 2010, the following conversation took place in the fall of 2014.

Jesi Khadivi: When we first started talking back in 2010, we discussed how painting might behave socially. This was important for your project with Golden Parachutes because Couch Crash was essentially both a painting exhibition and a performative occasion: a moment in which a group of friends and colleagues gathered and confronted the ambiguity of an unexpected gift. I remember walking through the Schöneberg area of Berlin with you a few days before the show opened and being struck by your insistence that the project not merely be framed in terms of generosity. True, these works were to be given away, but they were given to a community of your peers: artists, who are often a highly mobile, transient lot. In such a community, a gift—or too many belongings in general—can become an albatross rather than a welcome present. Kind of like a charming, yet uninvited, guest. I thought about our conversation while reinstalling the paintings in my new apartment a few months ago. My black secretary desk was abandoned when I left Berlin in 2011, but the paintings came with me in my suitcase. Now, after yet another trip in my luggage, they’ve fortuitously been reunited with the old desk.

Couch Crash was your second painting distribution project and followed a series of oil paintings you began in 2004 based on imagery from the phone cards sold in your neighbourhood bodegas in Jackson Heights, Queens. You eventually reinserted the works into the fabric of the neighbourhood by setting up a blanket from which to distribute them to passersby. Each canvas had a flap cut into its surface with a scratch-off calling-card code, which gave the painting a use-value: the owner could use it to contact his or her family (or whomever). With their engagement with travel, distribution, and communication, these series of paintings have clear ties to post-conceptual art practices. Yet their intervention in the public realm also has some parallels with social practice. The key historical movements that are often credited with birthing social practice—namely Dada, neo-concretism, situationism, Fluxus, sculpture, new genre public art, and network art, as well as art activism—often evade painting. To me, social practice as a genre is symptomatic of the cutbacks of social services in our neoliberal economy, which artists’ focus on tangible social issues often reflects. It is therefore not surprising that painting hasn’t played a larger role in the narrative of social practice, considering that its practitioners’ concerns are primarily political and not formal. That said, our prompt from Fillip for this conversation was to discuss how we interpret the relationship between painting and social practice. How do you react to “social practice” as a term? Do you feel like it applies at all to your work as a painter? How do you see painting more generally contributing to its constellation of concerns, which often includes grassroots community building, creative solutions to providing social services, and the articulation of alternative economic systems? How might an understanding of the social history of painting inform our understanding of the contemporary relationship between painting and social practice?

Paul Branca: I never really thought about the contested definition of social practice. As an artist, I’m more interested in how the relative privacy of studio production, when presented publicly, can bring people together in its proposition for alternative interfaces, be that in how the artwork is distributed or the spaces where art can be viewed. With the two iterations of my project Fruit and Vegetable Stand (2012 and 2013), I created an alternative to the white cube—in this case, a green shack—as a site of presentation/marketplace. When passing by this functioning fruit stand, I realized that it was closed on Saturday and Sunday, as the neighbourhood is largely dead on the weekends. After some time considering whether or not it was best to ask permission to use the stand, I wound up illegally “squatting” it. I felt that if I asked permission to use it, it would somehow officiate the project, perhaps resulting in complications from the owners. I never found out who actually owned the stand. Rather, I decided to trespass for a few hours. I began discussing the idea with close painter friends who are somehow invested in producing representational work and would understand and trust my treatment of their works. The invited artists spread the word among their respective peer groups, and I received emails from more artists as the project grew. I requested that each participant choose one fruit or vegetable and make one to five copies of it in colour, as well as one in grisaille (for the project’s documentation). It was up to the artists to decide upon the prices. They received the full amount of the purchase price of the works—I simply played the role of the market vendor-cum-gallerist. Over thirty artists wound up submitting works, such as Carmelle Safdie, Sophy Naess, Pat Palermo, Fawn Krieger, and Timothy Hull. While installing the works, I felt the role of the artist slip into that of a vendor as I tried to make these wares appear desirable to the public. I have always envisioned the transaction between the buyer and the artist to be akin to the act of actually buying produce, where one might judge this apple to look better than that apple.

The public passersby, whether on foot or in some cases in cars, noticed the gathering crowds and convened at the stand. I think it was the illegal borrowing of the space alongside the commodity exchange of real fruits and vegetables for painted or sculpted stand-ins that created an uncanny environment for the distribution and sale of the paintings. The proposal of an alternative use-value for a stand that is closed for the weekends is a way to occupy and access real estate in a city where space is often inaccessible due to inflated rents. In Linda Nochlin’s book on Gustave Courbet, she describes how his painting A Burial at Ornans (1849–50) hypothetically served simply as a pretext for getting these fifty people together.1 Today painting is often regarded as a market-based “private experience”: functioning within a historical and material site of ideas in which the white cube is the final site of public presentation before the work disappears into the private sphere of the collector. Courbet’s Burial opened up the possibility of another site of exchange: that of bringing his townsfolk together in the manifestation of the work, which then interfaced with another public, after weeks of expensive art transport, at his temporary 1855 Pavilion of Realism at the Place d’Alma in Paris.2 In a completely modest way, I sought to address the possibility of getting people together with the Fruit and Vegetable Stand, to Queens—which is often a hard borough in which to conjure an audience—with the promise of an alternative economy, made up of works that are sold symbolically at street prices outside of the classic split-profit (gallery-artist) structure. The green ramshackle stand itself—already in existence, selected, squatted—became the social container of the project. It differs from a gallery or an apartment show, not only because of its context and location but also due to the fact that the stand itself is fugitive: police could have intervened and prevented the project from taking place. Like swimming or relaxing on a “private beach,” this project did not damage the stand in any way; in fact, it raised awareness about the use-value of breaking the rules legally—or the commission of a soft crime as a generative act.

Khadivi: A number of your projects in addition to Fruit and Vegetable Stand, such as the recent Social Sausage (2014) in Bologna, produce their own distinct economy. How does this factor into your creative process when conceiving a project?

Branca: I always consider the fact that when dealers assign prices to artworks in the standard gallery setting, the artist’s voice exists only as a commodity. This structure often prohibits alternative pricing structures like bartering, last-minute decisions, or gifting works. There is a space for the artist within these limitations, and I allowed for these exchanges to take place with Fruit and Vegetable Stand by letting the artist-participant decide up to the last minute.

In Bologna, I assigned a completely different valuation to my works on view. In lieu of remaking the Fruit and Vegetable Stand project for the space LOCALEDUE, I presented a multi-canvased work that ran the perimeter of the two gallery walls that could be seen from the piazzetta outside. Each unit of this chain depicted highly chromatically rendered sausages, which were hung in a zigzag fashion to connect the links. Each painting utilized the leftover oil paint from my studio production over time in accumulative divisionist units. I used a very specific pricing strategy to sell these process-based works—that of the Fibonacci sequence. The first two paintings each cost one euro, followed by the third that costs two euros, the fourth costs three, etc. The final canvases were priced well above market value for my works, especially in a city where there is no market, and the tail end of the sausage chain went unsold. I never experienced selling a lot of work all at once, but the first-come, first-served strategy enabled viewers to purchase works directly off the wall. Buyers could wrap them up and carry them away to their homes. Obviously I anticipated that when the paintings became “expensive” the buying would slow until it stopped completely. The tail end of the sausage paintings, as well as all the nails in the walls of the white cube, remained on view until the show’s closing. The final works, in my mind, assumed the role of relics and developed their own value: being “unaffordable,” “undesirable,” or “leftovers,” their place not punctuated by the history of this painting performance and exhibition.

Khadivi: Creating alternative systems of valuation and distribution for artworks seems central to your practice, yet many of your paintings have fairly classical art-historical roots. The still life, for example, appears again and again in your work. How did you begin working with this genre?

Branca: My interest in the genre of still life, specifically those of Édouard Manet, opened up and expanded upon the role of the object rendered—e.g., asparagus, bought at the market as a commodity form, in a sizable bunch for a family’s dinner. Or his salmon steaks ready to fry up for lunch. These tangible portions are important to me, as I like to imagine the actual paintings in their new object-commodity form being held by human hands—touched, carried, even traded. This was very influential for the carrying away of the fruits and vegetable paintings into the public sphere. 

Khadivi: Do you think Manet’s still lifes express a kind of utilitarian function (i.e., in representing the act of cooking lunch or feeding oneself) rather than a display of excess or bounty like, say, Dutch still lifes centuries earlier?

Branca: Pre-Manet, still lifes had different roles. During the Renaissance they often showcased wealth or presented a wide variety of types of, for example, vegetables or fish that existed within a given place and time, again often signifying wealth and civic pride, as if to exclaim, “Look how grand our market is!” Manet’s slices of salmon, his bunches of fruits, or his edible brioches were all purchased at the market, taken to his studio, and painted quickly, in his wet-on-wet technique. The paintings, like the foods, were designed to be consumed quickly. I think Manet showcased what the fancy stores had to offer in his time and place, but the portion he showed was for consumption in a volume of one or two portions of lunch or dinner for the chef of the house.

Khadivi: So the still life here becomes an expression of private life rather than civic pride.

Branca: I think this is similar to how JPEGs of paintings are traded and consumed. I did use Facebook as a way to distribute information about Fruit and Vegetable Stand and to update who was painting what. For instance, one week I posted that “Sophy Naess is painting fennel,” so the viewer then knew what to expect. Later on I also posted how the artists’ works were progressing in their studios when some sent me images of works in progress. This sparked interest in the project and ultimately enabled it to grow through online image exchanges—and it compelled more artists to participate. Photos of some works were shared and experienced before the exhibition. I like to imagine that all the artists were observing the close details of their chosen fruit or vegetable around the same time. This simultaneous investigation of the particularities of produce might create empathy among the thirty participants in the project. Yes, certain artists in this project were not still-life painters, but they were all interested in returning to an art-school fundamental assignment, that of observational painting.

Khadivi: One thing that strikes me as I look through the pictures on Facebook that you posted of Fruit and Vegetable Stand is that one artist would make several paintings of the same fruit or vegetable—almost as if they were the grower of that particular crop. One typically makes paintings as individual works or in series. Fruit and Vegetable Stand, on the other hand, introduces the logic of the multiple, which is typically reserved for prints, photography, and cast sculpture.

Branca: Ideally, I wanted there to be a bounty on offer to the public, where one would pick through a pile of paintings of peaches or plums and might say, “I will take this one since it appears better than that one.” Since paintings, even in serial form, are never truly identical, this made sense in my vision for the project.

Khadivi: In curatorial circles we often discuss how an exhibition has the capacity to create its public. A certain mode of address will produce a specific set of meanings or audiences. Following the sociologist Michael Warner, curator Simon Sheikh remarks: A public is an imaginary endeavor with real effects: an audience, a community, a group, an adversary or a constituency is imagining, and imagined through a specific mode of address that is supposed to produce, actualize, or even activate this imagined entity.3 I see a similar logic at play in the way that you approach painting. Your works aren’t produced in isolation to be contemplated by an anonymous public, but the structure of your projects seems to also emphasize the process of articulating an audience as a constitutive element of the work. Can you speak a little bit about how you conceive of the relationship between painting and its public, both historically and in relation to your own work?

Branca: It would be useful here to return to Social Sausage. LOCALEDUE, a non-profit space in Bologna, Italy, offered me an exhibition after the director of the space saw images of my Fruit and Vegetable Stand projects circulating on various social-media circuits. I was asked to make a new painting-stand project with Bolognesi artists and to perform the work in their city. Not knowing a single painter in Bologna, I refused his proposition because I wasn’t familiar enough with the scene there to materialize a group of local artists to occupy a market stand. My relationships with the artist-participants in New York developed naturally and were largely based on the kind of trust that can only be earned over time and not by anonymous emails.

Bologna is a city that popularly bears three nicknames: “the learned one” (la dotta), referring to its university; “the fat one” (la grassa), regarding its cuisine; and “the red one” (la rossa), derived from its history as the centre of the Italian PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano). I began to research how I might create an audience vis-à-vis these popularly known nomenclatures. I also wanted my work and time to pay for itself, and the fact that I was told that there is no art market in Bologna, and that LOCALEDUE was not a commercial space, became a constitutive element of the work. Bologna, as “la grassa”—one of the pork capitals of the peninsula—spoke to me directly as a way to connect my love for folkloric Italy to an audience to which I am unknown.

Khadivi: I think the contexts that you create to exhibit painting also demand (or at least accommodate) a particular mode of viewing: the mobile spectator. This kind of viewing seems to thrive in in-between spaces. Your project 20% Chance of Show, which took place in 2012, posits a “soft crime” similar to the one you describe with Fruit and Vegetable Stand, by way of inserting an exhibition into an umbrella rack at MoMA. An unauthorized gesture, the project presented works by yourself and other artists for an indeterminate time frame, its provisionality emphasized in the title; with only a 20 percent chance of show, this intimates the likelihood that the show wouldn’t take place was higher than the chance that it actually would. Like the produce stand in Queens, you used a functional object to frame a space of exhibition, but you also opened yourself to the museum’s control and censorship. What drew you to work in a liminal space like MoMA’s entryway?

Branca: I have this habit of exploring various architectural spaces—here, MoMA’s pre-admission lobby—for possibilities to intervene. I like its half-in, half-out space. You haven’t yet paid the entry fee, but you can still see art. The umbrella stand at MoMA is one such space. Its grid-like rack is where museum visitors can leave their umbrellas when it rains. They often pull these racks out on days where there is even the slightest chance of rain. That said, I know it’s verboten to bring umbrellas into the museum, so they created this middle space: a rack for visitors to leave their umbrellas at their own risk. I decided to “curate” a show in the confines of the rack. I asked several friends—Charles Mayton, Tim Pierson, Ana Cardoso, and Gregory Edwards, to name a few—to make their works on umbrellas, purchased from Muji, which were then brought to the racks during inclement weather, when the public could stumble upon them. Of course there was always a chance of the works disappearing. It is important to note that MoMA’s gift shop sells such umbrellas, with variations of artworks from their collection printed on some, such as René Magritte’s famous clouds.

I also made “borrowed” drawings. Taking a pile of blank sheets of paper from Félix González-Torres’s stacks, I proceeded to ask MoMA visitors to let me borrow a pen or pencil for a few minutes in order to draw from observation, albeit very staccato, from various pieces from MoMA’s collection. The work that manifested itself from this experimental and bothersome drawing performance was a sketch of Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac (1891)—the symbol of early modernism that observes the MoMA’s lobby, including the umbrella stand. It was a project that did not actually have to be performed, but I am a romantic and needed to go through with its execution.

20% Chance of Show sought to quietly bypass any of the previous clandestine techniques artists employed in order to install a show at MoMA sans permission. The umbrella stand itself is a design object for MoMA without an indicated author, and the pared-down version I made for the Kitchen, in Chelsea, for Lumi Tan’s exhibition Matter Out of Place (2012) was a scale replica of the grid where the works are installed. There are fifty-two slots, so ideally the project can continue.

Khadivi: How does context affect this project? Obviously at MoMA, the work is in dialogue with a very specific history of modernism. It also brings to mind the relationship between white cube and non–white cube spaces, the notion of parasitic occupation (the project is at the very least an “uninvited guest” at the museum), and the notion of a space being “between use” or “squatting” a structure—occupying the cracks. You were an invited guest at the Kitchen. Did this change how the project was presented and contextualized?

Branca: MoMA’s framing mechanism of modernism, that of the white cube, is less interesting to me as subject when compared to the cues of entry for an artist to intervene. Yoshio Taniguchi’s renovations, complete with larger entrances, more cash registers, and faster escalators, pander to the increasing number of global art tourists rather than the experience of visitors seeking intimacy with its collection (which I prefer). One such entry point is its umbrella policy: there is signage that states in bold Helvetica font that MoMA is not responsible for the umbrellas left in its stands. I suppose if everyone checked their umbrellas, the hordes of Picasso-hungry visitors would be even harder to corral. At the Kitchen I presented a re-creation of the MoMA intervention; however, it still followed the same rule: visitors were only able to view the works (open the umbrellas) if it was raining. It did have a completely different effect. This iteration of the project was more intimate and, although the Kitchen had significantly fewer visitors, the project had more visibility because it was clearly presented as art.

Khadivi: When we worked together at Golden Parachutes, we produced a small PDF to accompany the exhibition. Coincidentally, but not at all unsurprisingly, each of the four authors quoted David Joselit’s text “Painting Beside Itself” (2009). Since the project took place in 2010, this text was of course very much in the air at the time. Yet I’m interested in revisiting some of its claims with a bit more distance, now that nearly five years have passed. I’d like to hear about how you conceive of painting—both on and off the canvas. How do you feel that the impulse, which a number of painters feel, to take painting off of the canvas might relate to our increasingly networked society, the post-medium condition, or the neoliberal demand for flexible intellectual labour?

Branca: Couch Crash (2010) sought to stress a case for painting as a way to bring people together, specifically focusing on an inclusive demographic of “friends” living in Berlin. The friend-cum-participant idea was devised alongside the paintings, but unlike my decisions surrounding how I painted the individual works, how the participants chose to act was unscripted. This lent a certain excitement to the project: Who does what? And how? As I mentioned earlier, Fruit and Vegetable Stand also employed social networks as part of its content. Although the individual paintings were created in private, using the artist-participant’s subjective painterly decisions and material gestures, Facebook served as an immaterial apparatus that helped the project become more bountiful by managing and organizing the project’s participants.

Joselit’s capitalizing upon Martin Kippen­berger’s claim that all painting must be part of a network4 is problematic because, although most of his examples stress obvious interest in expanding painting outside of the rectangle-on-wall into the realm of the social, most painters’ primary objective is framing what painting is within the confines of this rectangle. It is precisely what painting cannot do that makes it interesting as a métier. Having said that, I studied at Bard with most of the artists that Joselit used as examples to illustrate his text, most closely with Jutta Koether. Koether’s influence was very strong and her love of museums as fodder, specifically for locating genres of art production that have been rarely explored and how revisiting them can become social, was tantamount to my painting projects that employ distribution as a main element. My conception of painting projects considers the very workings of composition—i.e., its ability to function as a work independently of the exhibit or presentation of the whole, and also its relationship to the whole.

Joselit’s sentiment that painting is no longer “enough on its own” is rubbish, or it has always been that way; just think about Renaissance religious painting: one also needs a knowledge of faith. When has painting ever been “enough on its own”? However, his “reification trap” interests me: his mention of how all the material around painting—references, printed matter, objects, performances, and gestures—can make it difficult to possess the painting as object, outside of the marketplace. When confronting works by these artists I often wonder where the artists’ priorities and desires run deepest: Is the painting as valuable as the singular gesture of including a readymade of performance? Regardless, it is the material fact of painting that remains to be the future’s most present sign of the artist’s work. I could be wrong here, but I treasure my private time in the studio figuring out how to use materials to conjure meaning, and I also find great pleasure in the installation of the works and how that conjures meaning with an element of the distributive or performative.

  1. See Linda Nochlin, Courbet (London: Thames and Hudson, 2007).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Simon Sheikh, “Constitutive Effects: Techniques of the Curator,” in Curating Subjects, ed. Paul O’Neill (London: Open Editions; Amsterdam: de Appel, 2011), 178.
  4. See Martin Kippenberger, interviewed by Jutta Koether, “One Has to Be Able to Take It!” (1990–91), in Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, ed. Ann Goldstein (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 316.
About the Authors

Paul Branca is an artist and teacher based in New York. His work has been exhibited at Galerie Sabot, Cluj, Romania; West, The Hague; the Kitchen and the Sculpture Center, New York; and LOCALEDUE, Bologna, Italy. Recently, he was included in Painting Now, published by Thames and Hudson and edited by Suzanne Hudson. His studio doors remain open, so feel free to contact him as seen fit.

Jesi Khadivi is a curator and writer based in Berlin. She is Director of Research and Exhibitions at carlier l gebauer and Editor-at-Large of the annual bilingual journal Sur. In her spare time she translates from German under the collective pseudonym Textual Bikini.

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