Reggie Watts


Reggie Watts (Photo: Noah Kalina)

Reggie Watts’s comedic-musical performances tend to confound his audiences for long stretches of time, leaving them anchorless as he futzes senselessly with sound equipment, or morphs from one absurdist character to another. Here, Watts muses about his use of abstraction and channeling, providing a glimpse at the freedom inherent in his process of improvisation. The artist performs on July 1 at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, on the occasion of the release of his CD/DVD Why S#!+ So Crazy?

PEOPLE USUALLY END UP THINKING, What the fuck is he doing? At some point in a set I’ll start doing stuff that’s not funny. It’s weird or depressing. Or on the verge of depressing. Or just confusing. Then I do something absurd, and there’s a release––and then we’re back on track again. There isn’t an obvious or logical nature to it. I’m recontextualizing things, or taking two disparate elements and making them clash. And when that happens there’s a reaction. Usually it’s something laugh-y. Or maybe the audience is just laughing because they’re nervous. Or just like, huh? Hopefully it provokes some kind of reaction. But it’s really just about absurdity. I like going down the road and taking people way down this path through the thorns and thickets and then, at a snap of the fingers, they’re in a McDonald’s and wondering, how did I get here? I like humor that really goes somewhere and takes chances. I think every joke is an experiment.

The experience of performing is very similar to channeling. The more open I am, the more these ideas come into mind ahead of time. I’m performing but I can see these options in the future and can continue performing. It’s like in Tetris when you see the preview of the next shape coming. You’re playing the game in real time and you’re placing the block, but you’re also aware of the next one. I’m performing live, and I get a preview of a potential idea. I can use it however I want. I can rotate the shape. I can put it over here or put it over there and create a strategy in real time. When I’m open, I see more pieces ahead of time.

I like abstraction because it frees you from structure. As an audience member listening to or watching Bill Cosby, or any of the masters, like George Carlin, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what they have to say because you feel like you are there with them. But their style also follows a familiar logic. I mean, they throw some curveballs at you because that’s just the nature of the comedy. But when I’m watching Monty Python or Bill Hicks, at times they have this way of creating a psychedelic experience. I think it’s the psychedelic that I’m interested in, because after a while people ask themselves, What’s the joke, where is this leading me? And then I fail to lead them anywhere they expect. And then they let me try it again. And after so many times of being let down, you have to either go “I hate this. I’m leaving,” or just surrender to it. Then you can just go along for the ride.

In a way, I am kind of an audience member too––I’m on the ride myself. I’m listening for signals. I call it a data stream––this stream of information that exists floating all about the ether and there’s my own experience and all of that mixes together. There is chaos: me being onstage, the audience, the venue, the lights, the way it sounds, the way I’m feeling. All of that comes together to create a unique experience on the stage for me, and if it’s going really well, I get to step outside my body and enjoy the show too.

I’m constantly observing, zooming out from a situation and seeing the absurdity out of context. I think of humor as an annihilation of opposites. In particle physics they talk about certain particles existing in two places at the same time. When something comes into space, its opposite is also generated in negative space. When you generate a setup in comedy, you’re also generating its antithesis. If the timing is good, those two sides can annihilate each other. When they annihilate, there is this epiphany that occurs, or a moment of enlightenment. The audience gets it, and then they just laugh. They’re laughing because they see everything. Everything and nothing. And it’s just this beautiful elated feeling and you are just laughing. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about. When someone’s laughing, they zoom out from the “my life sucks and my girlfriend did this and my friend like backstabbed me” monologue. When you laugh, you forget about all that stuff, and then for a second you say: “That’s how easy it is to let go of things.”

— As told to Miriam Katz

Left: View of living space inside Indianapolis Island. Right: Andrea Zittel, Indianapolis Island, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Andrea Zittel has received international acclaim for nearly two decades. Concurrent with exhibitions of her work in Florence at the Palazzo Pitti and Sadie Coles HQ in London, the Joshua Tree, California–based artist recently debuted her latest installation, Indianapolis Island, a makeshift island in 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

THE ISLAND is iconographic for conditions of autonomy, independence, and individualism in our culture. It represents our greatest fears and greatest fantasies; everybody wants to be an individual and to have autonomy––but we also want to feel like we are part of a community. The desire for individualization is linked inextricably to consumer culture: People consume to individualize themselves and they also consume to combat the resulting feelings of isolation or loneliness. This facilitates fascinating oppositional forces of desire, repulsion, and impulsion simultaneously.

I grew up in suburban Southern California. My parents built our house in what was originally a very rural and undeveloped area in dry scrubby rolling hills a little north of San Diego. At the time, the area was becoming completely developed. I don’t think that people from cities can understand how parasitic that kind of rapid growth can feel. Each family that moved into our neighborhood built a large home on a freshly surveyed piece of land. I remember feeling very aware of how the resulting yards were then landscaped. Each was thematized as if it were its own country; one yard was a jungle, the next a forest, and perhaps the next parcel would be a desert. People lived as if they were isolated in self-contained estates that were wholly separate from the larger community.

If you look at the larger historical evolution of architecture and domestic spaces, our homes are increasingly segregated and compartmentalized. It was the norm when I was growing up for each child to have his own bedroom. This is something that is historically quite new. I often wonder if it is the reason why it’s so difficult for adults of my generation, and those since, to cohabitate or have close interpersonal relationships. I believe that we have become so successfully individualized that it is difficult for us to live collectively.

When beginning to travel to Europe in the early 1990s for shows like Documenta and Münster, I became highly aware of the differences between European and American conceptions of personal space. My series of small deserted islands, which were first made for Münster, comes out of this consciousness. The Indianapolis project is an evolution of a larger idea for a habitable island. The first habitable island I made in Scandinavia was so large that it had to be destroyed, and since then I have been looking for an opportunity to make an island that would be a permanent piece.

My use of a natural landform in Indianapolis is also influenced by Point of Interest, which I made for Central Park in 1999. After researching different representations of nature and understanding how strongly Central Park was influenced by a nineteenth-century perception of “pastoral” nature, I wanted to present a late-twentieth-century conception of nature with action, adventure, and eco-sports.

How to interface with the public is an ongoing problem in my work. I am always looking for a function that my work can play. There has to be a reason for it. I did not want the Indianapolis Island to be an inert sculpture in the park. The project needed an integrated social function. Originally, we were going to make the structure very big. But when the economy tanked, we had to shrink it to stay within our budget. It actually became a much more interesting project under the new constraints. The island’s revised size was just large enough for two people to live in. Then “Indy Island” became a really interesting experiment. We chose two island residents who would be mediators between the public and the work. So much of my output is about personal experience, and the island inhabitants will act as instruments of interface between their own experiences and those of the public; they will be rowing people and facilitating visits to the island. I am generally a private person and could never interact so successfully with people myself, but the island residents [Mike Runge and Jessica Dunn] are charming, charismatic, and comfortable with the public—they are writing a blog to document their experiences.

Really good art simultaneously reveals both good and evil. It brings up complicated questions rather than proposing smug answers. “Indy Island” brings into focus fundamental issues of need, comfort, security, and privacy. (I noticed that many of the park visitors were very interested in where the island residents would poop). It is an interesting exercise for people to examine their own day-to-day lifestyles and consider what they could live without, or live with. I am, however, hesitant to jump on the eco-bandwagon, because I feel that its moralistic point of view is not very interesting. Much of the movement for sustainable living is just another form of commoditization, which simply creates new levels of desire. I see many advertisements for people to get new and expensive eco-friendly products, but little of the current mentality has to do with thinking about actual needs. Do you really need a car? Do you need all the clothes? Do you need a new computer every two or three years? Without being moralistic or preachy, I hope that these are the questions my work will inspire.

— As told to James Eischen

Left: Charlotte Posenenske at the Kleine Galerie in Schwenningen, Germany, 1967. Right: Charlotte Posenenske, Vierkantrohre Serie D (Square Tubes Series D), 1967, Frankfurt airport, 1967. (Photo: Burkhard Brunn)

Stefan Kalmár is the director and curator of Artists Space. Below, he discusses Charlotte Posenenske’s withdrawal from the art world in 1968 as well as her importance to Minimalism and relational aesthetics. The first institutional exhibition in the United States devoted to Posenenske’s work opens at Artists Space on June 19.

CHARLOTTE POSENENSKE reminds me of Marc Camille Chaimowicz, whose first US exhibition, held at Artists Space last September, marked the beginning of my tenure in New York. Artists Space will always try to highlight artists who have been historically marginalized––not emerging but reemerging artists who destabilize the comfort zone of recent art history. Posenenske, as a prominent figure in European Minimalism, is a striking example. Through her travels to New York in the 1960s and her exhibitions at Konrad Fischer and Paul Maenz, she was fully aware of American Minimalism, yet she developed a unique language that challenged it. Her work has yet to receive widespread acknowledgment. So far there have only been two posthumous exhibitions in the United States: at MoMA, as part of “In & Out of Amsterdam” in 2009, and a solo show at Peter Freeman in 2008.

Our exhibition will include Posenenske’s Vierkantrohre Serie D [Square Tubes Series D] from 1967. These fabricated works look like air conditioning shafts; they could easily be mistaken for readymades, which of course they are not. Posenenske’s production process is crucial to understanding her approach. As with most of her work, the tubes were industrially manufactured in unlimited editions and sold at cost. No surplus value was added––a killer for the market. Posenenske wanted the curator or dealer to construct his or her own installation of the tubes for each exhibition. This is especially germane if you consider that in 1968 she decided to stop making art altogether and enrolled herself in the sociology department at Frankfurt University, studying assembly line production. I am particularly interested in this transition. Early on she recognized the limitations of art, and shifted her focus to sociology. Her work is all the more compelling in light of the discursive aspects of “the relational” and the recent critical discussions around this.

While working on our show, it became important to also ask why her work has never received broad attention within the United States. Why does her art still exist only on the margins of art history? To highlight the participatory dimension of Posenenske’s work, every two weeks we will invite a different artist to change the Square Tubes––Ei Arakawa and Rirkrit Tiravanija have been invited, and a third is yet to be confirmed. Three generations will respond or pay homage to Posenenske’s notion of participation. This is the unique aspect of our exhibition, distinguishing it from recent exhibitions in Europe (at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and at the Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich).

Along with the tubes, we will also present Posenenske’s academic thesis, Time Given and the Value of Work, which she wrote with Burkhard Brunn (whom she later married). This will be exhibited for the first time. Our show has been developed in relationship with and through the extensive support of Dr. Brunn, who has administered the estate since 1985 and who also deserves all the thanks for keeping Posenenske’s work in the limelight.

It is important to understand that Posenenske never denounced her art practice. She realized that sooner or later she would need to address the limitations inherent within artworks, and take up the notion of work itself, by both studying sociology and lending her voice to the labor movement. I think it is exactly this antiromantic position that has made Posenenske’s art so interesting, poignant, and challenging over the past forty years.

— As told to Piper Marshall

Left: Cover of Barbara Hammer’s HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life (2010). Right: Barbara Hammer, Sync Touch, 1981, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 12 minutes.

Barbara Hammer is an experimental filmmaker whose groundbreaking work includes Dyketatics (1974) and Nitrate Kisses (1992). A retrospective of her films will play at MoMA from September 15 through October 11, with a Modern Monday presentation, on October 4, of her little-known work in performance, installation, and photography. Additionally, there are screenings at the museum of her films on June 19 and 23 for the series “Maya Deren and Her Legacy: Experimental Films by Women.” Her autobiography, HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, was recently published by The Feminist Press.

AFTER RECUPERATING FROM CHEMOTHERAPY, I began to put my archive in order. I was shocked to find this single sheet of typewritten paper with the title “What I want to be famous for.” I must have written it in the early 1980s before I moved to New York but knowing what I really wanted in life. According to it, I wanted to be recognized as a poet of images, I wanted to have an influence on the world, I wanted to make work that inspired others, and I wanted to be recognized for creative work that was unique and had never been done before. It’s full of grandiose ideas for a young woman who was probably thirty at the time.

When I found it, I cringed. I was asking so much. Now, I work with Creative Capital, and I’m trained in strategic planning. I see I was planning my future without really knowing that this was a discipline and that art was a business—that we artists must wear several hats. I’ve learned now that there’s nothing to be ashamed about in asking for wages for your work. Really, the exploitation of artists in this society is shocking. And for the amount of time and energy that we burn, our returns are so small and often neglected, especially in experimental film. I think we should unionize and we should have standard fees or withdraw art from our society unless we are paid for it.

When I was growing up in California, neither of my parents was particularly religious, and my mother was an atheist. I have always felt freedom. A freedom of physicality, a physical way of moving in the world. Going around the world on a Lambretta scooter when I was twenty-one, then with a man, and later coming out and going to Africa with a woman, driving BMWs across the United States, going by myself alone down to Guatemala on another trip, hitchhiking, leaving my marriage at one point, finding my way in the world as a physical presence. I am always trying to use or show a personal sense of sensation in films. I don’t mean sensationalism; I mean a kinesthetic sense of knowing the world through its haptic qualities.

MoMA curator Sally Berger began to interview me about my knowledge of Maya Deren nearly a year ago. Suddenly Maya was active in my mind again. Her “vertical cinema” is what always struck me as a powerful approach to film. What she is speaking about is layering her emotive feelings and intellect within a time frame that moves not horizontally but up and down. I think also of Gertrude Stein, who writes about simultaneous time: where we can experience a multiplicity of images and feelings at the same time. For example, if you are a world traveler, you can immediately place yourself on different street scenes all over the world, but they’re really not instantaneous; they are linear. By compounding them and making your edit, you are approaching time vertically. This is what I do with layering in my work. The layering of the images, in A Horse Is Not a Metaphor, might manifest in four to six layers of film images including text. And that makes the moment so much richer in meaning and permits more emotional interplay.

— As told to John Arthur Peetz

Left: Michael Schmidt, Untitled, 1997–99, black-and-white photograph, 17 x 11 1/2”. From the series “Frauen” (Women), 1997–99. Right: Phil Collins, free fotolab, 2009, 35-mm slide projection, 9 minutes 20 seconds. Both works are in the Sixth Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art.

Kathrin Rhomberg is the curator of the Sixth Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, which opens in various venues around the city on June 11. Here, she talks about the exhibition, her addition of the nineteenth-century painter Adolph Menzel, and why she’s staging most of the Biennial in Kreuzberg.

THE BERLIN BIENNIAL is inspired by my observations of the past ten years, not just of the art world but also of the social and political developments in the region where it will occur. One of the dominant tendencies in the art world over the past ten years has been a kind of “new historicism”: a retrospective view of the twentieth century, of modernism for example. When I discuss this interest in twentieth-century questions and issues with younger artists, they often give the same answer: that the future isn’t something they think about anymore. So it became urgent again for me to ask: Is there a relationship between art and the present moment, and if so, what does it look like?

Times of crisis often raise important questions about the relationship between art and reality. Take the 1920s here in Berlin with Brecht and Lukács, and artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix. Then, at the beginning of the ’60s, there was an international movement that tried to blend life and art. In the past decade we’ve had moments of deep crisis. It’s now obvious that the economic downturn will change our lives drastically, but this isn’t a new thing; I would say it started in some European countries at the end of the ’90s. Then 9/11 made it clear that something was really going on, and we now see a little more clearly what happened in the financial world. So a show like the Biennial is an important moment to once again ask questions about art’s relationship with the present.

I also decided to include a small show of Adolph Menzel’s drawings and gouaches, curated by Michael Fried. For Fried, Menzel was one of the most important artists of the nineteenth century. He’s not considered that way internationally, unfortunately. Menzel lived during the second half of the nineteenth century, a period that’s interesting for the present because there were so many similarities to what’s going on now. After the revolution of 1848, there were nostalgic points of view, but at the same time artists and writers in Germany and France became interested in the relationship between art and a contemporaneous social and political situation. Menzel was one of these artists. It was also an interesting time in Berlin, because the city changed entirely: Many people moved here from the countryside to the city and it really exploded. Menzel documented this in his drawings.

I decided to focus the Biennial in the western part of Berlin. In the beginning, I wasn’t specifically interested in Kreuzberg, but we found a really beautiful building there. I also think Kreuzberg is compelling because it’s a district defined by migration. Countries like Germany and Austria have never really discussed migration, and now they’re being forced to deal with it. Kreuzberg shows a very positive model for our future society. Since 1989, we’ve been living in one Berlin, or “one world,” which has opened up new perspectives, struggles, crises, and so on. I think this one-world moment is somehow happening in Kreuzberg, because there aren’t closed groups or societies living there—it’s really fluid. Ordinary life goes on there too. You have different models of living and so many ideologies thriving there, and it’s productive.

With the exception of Menzel, there won’t be any historical works in the exhibition. It was important to choose works that were either made recently or specifically realized for the Biennial, in order to touch the present and find new perspectives, new ways of thinking. The past ten years, and particularly the position of the art market, changed so quickly that we didn’t really have time to understand what it meant. Now we can look back; we’re in a situation where we have to ask more questions.

— As told to Anthony Byrt

Left: Michael Joo, Imperfected (Imago #1), 2010, stainless steel, 60 x 55 x 60". Right: View of “Have You Ever Really Looked at the Sun?,” 2010. From left: Damien Hirst, Invasion, 2009; Damien Hirst, The Black Sheep with Golden Horns, 2009; Michael Joo, Doppelganger (Pink Rocinante), 2009; Michael Joo, Herkimer Diamond (Manheim), 2010; Michael Joo, Acropora, 2010; Damien Hirst, The Incredible Journey, 2008. (Photos: Peter Mallet)

Damien Hirst and Michael Joo have organized an exhibition of their works at Haunch of Venison’s cavernous Berlin branch, and have titled it “Have You Ever Really Looked at the Sun?” Here, both artists discuss the show, which is on view until August 14, as well as their long friendship.

“HAVE YOU EVER REALLY LOOKED AT THE SUN?” is derived from a joke about snowmen. One asks another: “Can you smell carrots?” Of course, snowmen can’t smell carrots, not only because they can’t smell but also because it’s the very material their noses are made of. So in response to that, we’re asking this question because you can’t really look at the sun––if you did, you’d be blind. Nevertheless, looking at the sun is something that both of us have always wanted to do since we were kids. Originally, the idea was to call the show “Life,” because literally everything is in it. And it really is about everything: crystals, science, landscape, and so on.

Despite the fact that we’ve been friends for nearly twenty years, this exhibition is the first time the two of us are working together. We met in 1992 at the Unfair in Cologne. The official Cologne Art Fair was the epicenter of the art world back then. And the galleries that weren’t allowed in formed the Unfair. In that instance, we literally shared both sides of a wall.

For this show, we thought about which of our pieces would work well together. Both of us are interested in science, nature, Minimalism, love, and Jesus. Science is potentially very violent. Looking inside of things gives you answers, and cutting something in half is a very scientific thing to do. There are some of Damien’s formaldehyde pieces, such as The Incredible Journey, which features a zebra, and then there’s Michael’s Improved Rack (Elk #18), a wall-mounted sculpture of elk antlers. Antlers are a symbol of who is the boss in the forest. They appear to be symmetrical, but nothing in nature is perfectly symmetrical. They are both trophies and not-trophies. They’re some sort of natural readymade, kind of like the zebra. In the end, we want to look at the core of nature, but as the title of the show suggests, you can’t really do that.

— As told to Dominikus Müller