David Gryn blog

Dara Birnbaum and David Gryn in conversation

In Art, Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Fair, Artprojx, Artprojx Cinema, Dara Birnbaum, David Gryn, SoundScape Park on 06/12/2013 at 11:28 pm

Arabesque by Dara Birnbaum. New World Center, SoundScape Park, Art Basel Miami Beach 2013

Dara Birnbaum and David Gryn in conversation at the Salon at Art Basel in Miami Beach 2013.

In the preceding months in advance of our talk at the Art Fair, we emailed various questions and answers to each other.

The talk will be online via Art Basel soon.

These questions and answers are probably more detailed than those in the live talk.


Image: Dara Birnbaum, PM Magazine/Acid Rock, Marian Goodman Gallery

DB = Dara Birnbaum

DG = David Gryn

DB: Since you invited me and my work to ABMB 2013, I would be very curious as to the reasons behind your curating it in at this specific time.

DG: I had been thinking of works that I knew that would be ideal to play in the New World (Symphony) Center location, Arabesque was rooted in my thoughts, but stayed in the margins, due to its 4 screens (as seen at the South London Gallery), so your willingness to create a single screen version filled me with delight. 

DG: How does the single verses the 4 screen work for you ?

DB: But, I was willing to try and see if the component parts actually could be re-organized into the singular film frame. Of course, that frame is purposefully broken up and each of the constituent images perform in slightly different ways.

I very much had in mind this particular screening (its premiere) – of a incredibly large outdoor projection surface and the way people would be placed in relation to that screen image. I chose to make the appropriated film section larger, without being completely dominant – but regaining a declaration of “film” space. The quotations from YouTube run alongside, in their alternating pattern. When the Clara Schumann work is played, the frame is basically split in two – with the piano work composed by her via YouTube, alongside quotations from her diary.

DB: What issues and/or visual/audio enticements spurred you on, precisely now?

DG: I too am fascinated by the internet and how it and we are evolving with each other and all of its inherent languages. When I first discovered Clara Schumann, I thought I had discovered and unearthed a great mystery, as I thought her music was as or more magical than Robert Schumann’s. So I have always carried a torch for her and was always aware of the imbalance of the male/female relationship. What is it about Clara Schumann that inspires/inspired you ?

DB: I see the internet and YouTube, carried by the Internet, as two different, but interwoven, things/phenomenon. YouTube mainly being postings of performative works that people wish to have seen and/or remarkable documents, from performances to real life situations, etc.

I have respected Clara Schumann’s original musical compositions throughout the years, although they are not that well-known, or played in repertoire, etc. When I looked for the work by Clara Schumann, which I utilized in “Arabesque” I found, at the time, only one live recording of it on YouTube, yet it is a magnificent composition. Whereas, for the works of Robert Schumann there are hundreds of recordings that were made. I also “carried a torch” for Clara Schumann as she was a gifted pianist, who introduced the work of Robert Schumann to widening European audiences and fought for that music to be heard and known. Then, she had to balance a family of eight children and keep it all going while her husband was prone to mental illness, eventually taking his own life. When reading her diaries, I had mixed feelings about Clara, thinking that this maybe a woman I might not have “liked” (a nature toward an upper-class snobbery), but I definitely more than admired her strength and gifts.

DB: Of course, I know you are very supportive of “Arabesque” and its potential connection to this site-specific outdoor screening area, connected to, I believe, the Symphony Center in Miami Beach?

DG: I always try and think about the space, the place and the connections between places. So in Miami, I think about the New World Center, the Art Fair and the City of Miami and how they all relate and interact. I have a sense of broadcasting out of the wall from the music center to the art center/fair/festival. 

DB: “Arabesque” was originaly made as a large-scale installation – some 40+ feet in length and more than 6 ft. in height for the projections. The audio is treated in a most seriously and there are stereo channels/speakers for each of the 4 video channels of the work. So, you would enter into a darkened chamber of image and sound. It was meant to be an acoustical chamber as much as a visual art work. Now it is important to see how the work will respond to a different environment, one that puts it in-situ with a well established place for musical performance, The New World Center. It is like turning the inside out and directing a symbolic core out to an audience under the night sky. It will probably be like a – hopefully effective – “broadcast” but as with a broadcast, you get a secondary feeling from it. It brings you closer (through the enlarged and exaggerated image) but is still regulated to being a singular very large frame, like perhaps getting infinitely close to a painting, but without really being able to see the brushstrokes – just a large gestalt of the real.

DG: I have been fascinated by the relationship of the NWC to the Art Fair and the spaces inbetween, how audience react to the two and how one brings a city together for projects. I also see the wall of the NWC as a monitor to what goes on inside (ie the making of music) – so when I made the request to you for a single screen version of Arabesque – it was because I couldn’t imagine anything more appropriate, the focus on Clara Schumann. The projection of the inside to the outside. There is also the image of Kathryn Hepburn which brings along a Hollywood favourite too – which also has a resonance to our audience here. How did you see this all working ? and did/does it work as you hoped ?

DB: When asked to perform the work as a single-channel video, I very much had in mind the scope of the 7,000 square foot screen. Thereby, I thought to allow the film/movie image of, for example, Kathryn Hepburn, to reign larger than in the installation version of “Arabesque.” It seemed appropriate to let the captioned film segments loom slightly larger, yet not allow them to take over.

DG: As a result of thinking about you and your work and selecting older works too, I have realised that I have the hugest resource for programming film at an Art Fair … the last 40 years of moving image making by artists. The new is often limited and the old often neglected in lieu of venerating the fresh and exciting and not the experienced and acknowledged. The audience here and probably everywhere has seen so little. 

Which artists would you show and why?

DB: Let me think about this more. I would probably show a combination of early works and recent contemporary work. I like that combination. It is sometimes hard to capture a general audience with work that is “difficult,” but very exceptional and worthwhile. That is always hard to do with large audiences and continuous programs within the context of art fairs, where usually art work is looked at very quickly and then one moves on, unless they almost “trip” upon something that is profoundly to their liking (or that has gained advance publicity through the press.) Perhaps the screenings will command a necessary reparation from the fragmentation of the art fairs. It is sometimes very good to have a place to sit and allow for moving image works, in their entirety, to be absorbed, after a day of utter fragmentation.

DB: Are you also interested, culturally, as to when these works were formulated – what surrounding atmosphere and sphere of activity helped propel them forward ?

DG:  With regards to gender/feminism – what were the conditions that shaped you at the launch of your career ?. It seems that performance and video were fairly new areas to explore in the 70‘s and thus not already dominated by men – so was it that the timing was just right ? or ? It is interesting to know what made you feel the need to make Arabesque and the current status of gender balance (and hierarchies) in the art world and the wider world ?

DB: There has been much speculation that since video was a fairly new area to explore in the 70s, it was not already dominated by men. There is some truth to that, although I felt that many male artists were – and still are – seen as a predominant force. I know that I was, at first, most affected by a number of male artists using video – such as Nauman, Acconci, and Graham. Then, the grandfather of video was seen as Nam June Paik. “Radical Software,” an exceptional early magazine/journal on video was male dominated (such as Frank Gillette, Ira Schneider, and Paul Ryan.) I was less aware of the work of Joan Jonas or Carolee Schneemann, for example. I was aware of Simon Forti, or others oriented in performance and movement, such as Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer. But, the real use and exploration of video remained somewhat with male artists – such as Bill Viola and Gary Hill. However, the equipment started to be readily available through small post-production studios funded by grants, etc. When I first encountered video, in Florence, Italy, through the gallery, Centro Diffusione dell Grafica, many well-known artists came through and were encouraged to do video works (around 1974) by the gallery’s owner/director Maria Gloria Bicocchi. Then there were artists such as Vito Acconci, Charlemagne Palestine, and Joan Jonas. That is how I was first exposed to video as an art form. However, the main control was in the hands of a few young men, Italian and primarily studying architecture. I thought I would never get my hands on the equipment. So, I returned to NYC, where several artists coming through  Florence, told me it was very active in the arts (mid-70s.) Someone lent me a portapak and my first works were made (1975.)

“Arabesque” like many of my works from early on concentrates on the representation of women, or their stereotyping or lost identity. This begins with “Technology/ Transformation: Wonder Woman” in 1978/9 and goes through more contemporary works, such as “Erwartung” (2001), and now “Arabesque” (2011.)

Even the “Damnation of Faust Trilogy” (1983-1987) brings significance to the role of the woman (who is seen taking both the identity of “Faust” and “Marguerite/Gretchen.”) At the end of that work, social and political identity supplant singular female identity. “Canon: Taking to the Street” (1990) also delves into individual identity (especially, but not limited to, violence perpetrated on women – but also extended to men.) It relates individual identity and victimization through the strength to be found in group/societal relations.

We can, of course, talk about the need for a feminist practice in the art world – and in the world-at-large.

DG: The show curated at Wilkinson by Karen Archey, with artists such Cory Arcangel – was a celebration of your role at the helm of appropriation from TV and the internet. How was this for you ? Which younger artists to you admire and why ?

DB: Unfortunately, I was not offered to be brought over for the show by Karen Archey at Wilkinson Gallery. So, I have no real idea how it came across, although I felt honored to be put in that position. I know Cory Arcangel. We were put together by “Artforum” several years ago to do the cover story for one issue – a dialogue between us. I think you can still find it online. Not sure. I can see Cory as the next generation to me and had a great time conversing with him, as well as getting to know his work on a deeper level of understanding. Most of the artists in the show curated by Karen Archey I did not know. Nor, unfortunately have I gotten a chance to know them. I find this true of a lot of work by younger artists today. In all honesty it is hard for me to keep up. I can keep up with a generation following me, like Cory, whom I have admiration for. Other artists are the ones I know through colleagues, or people I have worked with – for example – at Electronic Arts Intermix. I know, through EAI’s collection, artists like Ryan Trecartin, Seth Price, Shana Moulton, Kalup Linzy, Antoine Catala, Michael Bell-Smith, etc. I follow at a distance the work of people like Isaac Julien. Through the Marian Goodman Gallery I know Steve McQueen’s and William Kentridge’s work in-depth. But of course they are both advanced in their careers and not younger artists. I don’t follow artists working with the internet, or that Karen Archey feels are affected by the internet.

DG: What are your current influences and driving thoughts ?

DB: I am most affected by historical positions – such as I was with the installation work “Erwartung” (re-examining a moment in time, in that case the beginning of the 20th c. and “the woman” as portrayed by Marie Pappenheim in her libretto for Schoenberg’s opera.) I have been traumatized by our political positions in the U.S., especially in relation to the wars we have carried out in the Mideast and our treatment of the environment. So, I seem to have (perhaps retreated) turned my attention on gender politics – with works such as “Tapestry: An Elergy for Donna” (2005, lesser known installation), or lately with “Arabesque” (2011.) I was recently attempting to work on another opera “La Sonnabula” by Bellini, whose main character is a woman who sleepwalks. I hit a wall and am trying to knock it down, or go around it. I seem more affected by incredible historical works than by most of the art that is happening today. The current political positions of the U.S. and the trauma of the bombing of the “World Trade Center,” which I was an eye witness to, have left a part of me speechless.

DG: Are there any outstanding events that have significantly shaped you as an artist ? 

DB: I felt that I “grew up” during the years I lived in Berkeley, California – from 1970-1974. It was a hotbed of political activity in the U.S. Those years and the philosophies of the continuance of the New Left movements from that crucible greatly affected me and are the core of what all my early works were derived from, along with a strong attention to the role of women, as portrayed through mass media. So, the earliest works like “Lesson Plans: To Keep the Revolution Alive” (1977) where from this foundation and my increasing interest in the role of dominant media (as television) within our culture. From Berkeley, as well, I became aware of the women’s movement. Then other events greatly affected me along the way – the first bombing of the World Trade Center (producing the work on terrorism, entitled “Hostage,” 1994), or the events of “Tiananmen Square” (“Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission,” 1990.) The Gulf War greatly affected me (“Transmission Tower: Sentinel,” 1992, commissioned by documenta IX.) Then, I let my politics emerge more through an active position with various groups (rather than through my art), such as “Care 2,” “Move On,” and many environmental and animal rights groups. I continued with my desire to investigate and re-portray the role of women within technocratic cultures, but I haven’t been able to directly take-on the vast and extraordinarily complex political situation of today. In other words, I have been “terrorized.”

DG: How has the art world environment changed since you started ? How do you see the art environment now ? My environment has changed by there being more art fairs and their dominance reigns, and over the growth of the Art Fair phenomenon, there has been incrementally less and less galleries showing video/film at Art Fairs. My view is that it remains a relative non-commodity, thus not deemed appropriate for Art Fairs, but needs to be seen by the Art (Fair) appreciating audience, which now focusses their art viewing attention on Art Fair seasons. 

DB: I feel a bit lost in the corporate values of today’s art world, from my point-of-reference. I had great admiration for the arts developed the generation before me.

I had been affected by “conceptual art” and the early works of Daniel Buren and Michael Asher, for example. Then of course by both the Pop Art movement, in my years growing up in NYC (like Warhol and Lichtenstein), and also the minimalists (like LeWitt), along with Flavin, Andre, etc. Then it was the work of Acconci and Graham that influenced me.

Unfortunately, you can see that I am only naming male artists! The women I was drawn to were more along the line of performance art – especially Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Simone Forti. There is a great discrepancy in relation to the “value” of the work of art in what Lippard determined as “the dematerialization of the art object” and the value placed on “works” of art today. I was more interested in process than product. In video I thought that my work would be more along the lines of unlimited editions (such as with the single-channel video work, as distributed through organizations and non-profits such as EAI) and was more involved with video distribution than I was with “collection.” Now there is an attempt to control everything, in light of the edition and marketing of art works, along with the terrible concern of “ownership” (as shown through the need for proper releases and concern with copyright, etc.) I also don’t like the engagement and cross-over with the fashion industry, the entertainment industry, and the arts.

DG: How do you see the relationship between art and the commodity ? and can they really exist together ?

DB: This has been a question throughout much of our Western European-American history, especially since the Renaissance. The two have been endlessly entangled in Western European culture (and now throughout other cultures in the world, as the MidEast, Qatar, for example.) Art becomes commodified, beyond its essential existence or “soul.” Some of the best work of our culture – performances by Trisha Brown and Company are, in essence, non-commodified or not as easily commodified. Commodification limits the ability to concentrate on process and brings down the essence of the work to object nature and product. I am more a believer in the authenticity of the artistic statement, which becomes more removed the more commodification takes place. Of course there are artists who play on this edge, such as Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst.

DG: What would your advice be to a young artist with a view to empowering them ?

DB: It is hard to give great advice to younger artists. Patti Smith has tried to tell younger artists to get out of New York City, that it can no longer support the position of a real artist. David Byrne has recently done the same. When rents and living necessities are sky-high, it is hard to think clearly about one’s art. However, NYC and London, for example still service as hubs for young artists. The resources of NYC, for example, are priceless – such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera, and MoMA, amongst so much else. I like for younger artists to stay as independent as possible of “the hype” and to progress at their own rate. A hard thing to do now-in-days with so much pressure on them. When I came back to NYC (from Europe) in 1975, specifically to engage in the arts, my rent was $125/month for a full floor small loft in the downtown area. I was able to waitress three days a week, make my rent, and also do my art.

DG: How do you relate to our ever evolving space of the internet and the gadgets that we use to explore and utilise it ?

I use the internet for communication and for research. I haven’t been able to make art work directly inspired by it, or on it, other than using the voices of YouTube, as with “Arabesque.” I used to never use FaceBook and now find myself checking it – ever so rapidly (like speed reading) – at the end of each day. I find many postings of worthwhile articles, along with death notices that hit there before they are announced in newspapers, etc. I rapidly scan it and find what I am most interested in and need. I have about 5,000 friends and that seems to do it.

I am usually against “gadgets,” but can see things as working tools. For example, I own a iPad mini that goes almost everywhere with me. However, I still don’t own a smart phone! When I am waiting for someone, or for a meal, or in a doctor’s office I do research now. I love the instantaneous access to information and the wide breathe of it. But, one must be aware that every action is now under surveillance and that even our email is being read (such as Google looking for which ads are to be directed at us, based upon our communication.) Uncensored access to information is most important to me.

Copyright: David Gryn and Dara Birnbaum


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