Left: Marlene McCarty, patty columbo—may 4, 1976 (may 15, 1976), 1999, graphite, ballpoint pen, colored pencil on paper, 72 x 55”. Right: Marlene McCarty, fig. 1: group 10.2 (stinker. hug.), 2007, graphite and ballpoint pen on paper, 102 x 110”.

Marlene McCarty has worked across various media since the 1980s. She was a member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury and also created the transdisciplinary design studio Bureau with Donald Moffett in 1989. McCarty is well known for her early work, including her hard-hitting text paintings. In recent years, she has been recognized for graphite, ballpoint pen, and colored-pencil portraits that probe issues ranging from sexual and social formation to parricide and infanticide. The first major survey of her work opens at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery on November 2.

ONE OF THE REASONS I chose to work in an oversize scale in the mid-1990s is that I wanted the girls depicted in my drawings to be taken seriously and not to be dismissed as diminutive Barbie dolls. I wanted the interaction with the viewer to become a more immersive situation rather than a subject-object situation. The scale became a very important physical quality. My portraits of girls who killed their mothers––poltergeists, as I like to call them––bled into a long-term project. What started as a compact series, which I thought would take six months, has stretched into fifteen years. It wasn’t the works’ monumentality that made the project take longer, but more the way I chose to draw––I was trying to draw in a way that a teenage girl would have depicted herself or in a way that she might have found herself attractive. This required a very meticulous kind of drawing that takes a really long time. The quick, bang-it-out, mechanical-reproduction thing of my previous work was not doable, and that’s part of the reason why my series have just slowed down enormously. The process kept going deeper and deeper and became more immersive to me as an artist. I was no longer able to just chew it up, spit it out, and move on.

When I started the “Poltergeist, Girls at Home” series, I was emerging from the late ’80s and early ’90s. As you know, this had been a time that was intensely concerned with identity politics. The expectations of that period were heavy. I was involved in Gran Fury, so I was very much a part of this concentration on identity, thinking about who speaks for whom, who assumes the dominant voice, and so forth. But I didn’t feel like I could keep churning out the same things. Identity politics was a catalyst in the beginning, but it’s something from which I’ve slowly moved on. Though saying that doesn’t mean it’s not there––a piece of that discussion always exists as an underlying foundation somewhere in my art.

If someone had told me at the beginning that it would go on for fifteen years, I would’ve been like, “No way—you’re out of your mind!” And if someone had told me three years before that, “You’re going to do figurative drawings,” I would’ve been just as unlikely to believe them. You know, there have been many funny little twists and turns.

I’m often asked about the underlying violence of those works, but actually I’ve never been motivated by violence. Instead, I’m interested in intense bonding situations, which might be related to identity formation. Thus, my newer work about primates and religion. It’s true that most of the situations I’ve researched and depicted have ended badly. But the violence isn’t what initially attracted me to them; it’s merely, oddly, a coincidence.

This exhibition has been tricky because most of my art life has been in New York, and pretty much all of my work has at some point or another been shown in New York. It was a challenge for me to figure out how to make something that would be both a survey and at the same time not too redundant. I didn’t want locals to walk in and think, “Oh, didn’t I see that last year?”

In my initial conversation with Michael Cohen, we discussed organizing the show thematically. But there wasn’t enough space in the galleries to do that. My drawings are so huge that I didn’t have the freedom to place them just anywhere in the gallery to support a theme. The space is also kind of rambling, with lots of small rooms. In the end, the galleries’ spatial organization forced me to radically edit the work. The trajectory of my work has been at times extremely varied. The small spaces have given me the possibility of placing different bodies of work in proximity to each other, thus creating a conversation between my old and new output, instead of just a chronology.

At first it felt strange that the show was being organized by NYU and not a more established art organization. But this turned out to be fairly liberating. I didn’t feel the pressure that might have been implicit with some big art institution and its legacy. I’ve positively embraced the marginal status of this gallery.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Ry Rocklen


Ry Rocklen, ZZZ’s, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

The Los Angeles–based artist Ry Rocklen was the first artist-in-residence at the recently opened Visual Arts Center, a project and exhibition space managed by the University of Texas at Austin. For his installation ZZZ’s, Rocklen used everyday objects such as a bed frame, a fan, folded sheets, and wind chimes to suggest a space of veneration and domesticity. The exhibition is on view until December 18.

THE INSTALLATION is very much about material presence. I knew I wanted to work with items that help you get your zzz’s; there are so many of them in the world. For instance, an old mattress found on the side of a road. I am interested in the objects’ formal familiarity, and how you could imagine what they would feel like if you were to touch or lie down on them.

In the past I played with the idea of sleep by tiling or studding a variety of mattresses. For this show, I originally thought to tile the inside of a canopy bed frame so it would be this giant mirrored cube enclosed by the canopy bed material. That was the nexus for the show. The other works would be satellites to that piece, and the bed would act as the black hole in the center of the exhibitions’ universe. It seemed logical that the satellites would explore notions of sleep in that they would be relating back to the tiled canopy bed frame.

When I was going to tackle the tiling, however, I quickly realized it was going to be a nightmare. It was going to take so long to make and I wasn’t sure how much of an impact it was actually going to have. It didn’t seem very economical. So I decided to use the same weaving approach as in my previous “cage” works like Extruded Cage (1-2) on the canopy bed frame, only on a much larger scale and using PVC pipes to create a grid. I really liked this idea of turning it into a giant puzzle, where it would be these three materials colliding—the materials being the canopy bed frame, the mattress, and the pipes.

The Visual Arts Center is nearly 1,500 square feet, so I wanted to go big. I considered larger pieces that would lend themselves to being created by a team of students. The carpet tile floor seemed like a logical project for the students to work on. Once I had two days of ten or so volunteers coming in, in their dirty clothes, ready to spread carpet glue on these panels, I knew this installation was totally worth it, despite my previous worries. I liked how the simplicity and scale of the carpet tiles provided an opportunity for students and volunteers to have a hand in creating the show.

Some of the works in the installation are more directly associated with notions of sleep, whereas others relate to more abstract ideas. For instance, with the fan, it is hard to go to sleep when you’re hot. So it’s more of a sleep aid. The wind chimes hanging from the ceiling are also related to the state of sleep. If you were to describe the sound of the wind chime with flowery adjectives, some may say, “tranquil, serene, meditative, or calming.” The wind chimes act as the embodiment of sleep through sound. It is an everyday object in that it brings an element of sleep to your waking life.

— As told to Katie Geha

Left: Lisa Oppenheim, The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else, 2006, 35-mm slide projection. Right: Takeshi Murata, I, Popeye, 2010, still from a color video, 6 minutes.

Lauren Cornell is executive director of Rhizome.org and adjunct curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Here, she discusses “Free,” her latest curatorial endeavor at the museum. This innovative group show explores the ways in which the Internet has altered our collective notions of information and public space. “Free” opens on October 20.

TODAY, what constitutes the fabric of public space is not only the expanded sociality we’ve come to experience with the Web, but a highly visual, hybrid commons of information. “Free” attempts to illustrate how artists are approaching this radical change in culture to examine its possibilities, limits, and dilemmas. For instance, the works in the show by Trevor Paglen, Lars Laumann, and Jill Magid point to the ways in which ideas and information are repressed; Lisa Oppenheim’s 35-mm slide show The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else uses found images—pictures of the sunset taken by soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan—to point to larger realities: in this case, war.

Originally, I had titled the show “Free Culture,” after Lawrence Lessig’s book of the same name. As Lessig frames it, free culture acknowledges the kind of sea change the Internet has brought to industries such as music and publishing, and he argues these should be seen as opportunities, not threats. Free Culture––the movement that gained momentum around these ideas––advocates for open sharing and distribution of creative works via the Internet. But after considerable research, I felt that it wouldn’t make sense for an exhibition to simply advocate along these lines, and that a complex premise would be more true to the way artists are working. So I simplified the title, opting for something that could carry the contradiction and irony of the works I was seeing.

Seth Price’s “Dispersion,” an open-ended essay he has tweaked and adjusted since 2002, is another source of inspiration for the show. It is featured in “Free” within his larger sculptural installation Essay with Knots. The voice of “Dispersion” takes many forms, swinging back and forth from authoritative to personal and full of self-doubt. It explores artists’ attempts throughout the twentieth century to circumvent the structures of the art world through conceptual strategies and new forms of media, and thus to reach new audiences or publics. “Dispersion” is freely available on Price’s website, but it is also exhibited as an object. This coordination between the gallery and other spaces is shared by many of the works, from Aleksandra Domanovic’s 1930 to Joel Holmberg’s Legendary Account and Kristin Lucas’s Refresh––the gallery is one stop in a larger network, which includes performances, books, archives, installations, websites, and dance parties.

Many of the works in “Free” address public space, in terms of information, what is available, what is hidden, how it is accessed, circulated, and repurposed. For example, Takeshi Murata’s works often copy, mutate, and personalize public imagery. The character Popeye is the flexible subject of Murata’s I, Popeye, and he is given endless visual treatments in the work; he is copied, broken apart, and resurrected. Like images freely circulating in the public domain, Popeye seems to take on his own life, and yet constantly be altered and imprinted with use.

It was important to me to include a range of contemporary art forms in “Free” to emphasize that the Internet affects artists across disciplines. And yet somehow in the visual arts, it still is marginal or misunderstood. People still think narrowly about the field as “Net art,” which was its pioneering first iteration in the 1990s that explored its more formal properties: code, protocols, and connectivity, among other elements. Over the past decade, the field has exploded. (Rhizome, for instance, now covers works that deal innovatively with the Web as well as those responding to the broader aesthetic and political implications of new tools and media.) I wanted to create a different discourse about the Internet, as something that can be not only a medium but also a tool, a territory, and a catalyst for radical changes in our landscape of information.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Nikita Kadan


Left: Mykola Ridnyi, Tick to Agreement (detail), 2009, acrylic on canvas, 10 x 10“. Right: Nikita Kadan, ”Procedure Room“ (detail), 2010, screenprint on eight plates, 10 1/2” diameter each. From the series “Procedure Room,” 2010.

Nikita Kadan is an artist and activist in Kiev. Here he talks about “Court Experiment,” an exhibition of fifteen Ukrainian artists’ work organized by the curatorial community Hudrada in collaboration with tranzit.at, an Eastern European network of art initiatives. Opening this week at the Visual Culture Research Center at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the show is on view until November 12.

THIS EXHIBITION is based on events that are very close to us. Several members of Hudrada are currently involved in court cases, for protesting against the privatization of public space in new development projects, or against the Ukrainian Commission to Defend Public Morality, which has become a more and more powerful censorship structure. Three people may go to prison for up to three years and one may have to pay a large fine; one person already has a one-year suspended sentence.

Of course, the best way to protect and support such people is to mount a public campaign, to involve the press, and so on. We are also doing that, but “Court Experiment” is not so much activism as an art and research project about the postsocialist situation in Ukraine. We asked social theoreticians and researchers to participate in events, and we invited artists whose work touches on issues of repression or so-called soft repression in Ukraine’s supposedly liberal democratic society.

The artist Anna Zvyagintseva is presenting a cage made of fabric—a knitted cage. In Ukrainian courtrooms there is always a cage, in which a person is forced to sit if he or she is considered dangerous. The process of knitting, here, is a metaphor for the time that is taken away from activists by the court system, even if they are not imprisoned. So the work is about time, and about soft repression, too.

Lada Nakonechna’s video piece The Conclusion involves making abstract, senseless statistics from filming the street. She comments, for example, on how many people are wearing T-shirts, or how many people are turning left or going right. It serves no purpose but surveillance and control. Another artist, Mykola Ridnyi, is showing geometric paintings that are enlarged parts of official administrative court documents. The signs might appear formal or decorative, but they also come from the world of bureaucracy.

I am presenting a series called “Procedure Room,” for which illustrations of the Ukrainian police’s torture methods, drawn in the style of Soviet medical textbooks, are printed on souvenir plates. The figures in these drawings have a silent smile, as if they were acknowledging that torture is like a medical procedure that the state does to its citizens. The instructive style of the drawings projects the responsibility to the viewer, to everyone who sees them.

It is important for us that this exhibition space is also a living space, a space where people can get involved. The show will open gradually: On the first day there will be only documentary materials about the court hearings, and speeches about the current events—followed by a party. The exhibits will include drawings we have made during visits to the court, where photographs are not allowed. Then a week later we will open the next section, with three new pieces, so the exhibition will grow during its run.

The other events include screenings by Artur Żmijewski; a talk by a Russian activist about the situation in today’s Russia; and a roundtable on torture organized by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The focus overall is on the new conditions for social activism in today’s Ukraine. Art, literature, and activism will all be discussed. We will talk about uncomfortable and problematic issues, but the space will be quite comfortable and pleasant somehow.

— As told to Alexander Scrimgeour

Katy Siegel


Views of Americanana, 2010. Left: Josephine Halvorson, Cabinet, 2009; Robert Gober, Untitled, 1994-2010. Right: H.C. Westermann, Dustpan – Amaranth, 1972; H.C. Westermann, Dustpan – Douglas Fir, 1972; Kara Walker, Jockey, 1995; Elaine Reichek, Sampler (Above the Fields), 1999; Donald Judd, Chair, 1991/2002; James Turrell, Nicholas Mosse, and Bill Burke, Lapsed Quaker Ware, 1998.

Katy Siegel recently organized “Americanana” for the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at New York City’s Hunter College, where she is an associate professor of art history. This fall, London-based Reaktion Books will publish her latest volume, Since ’45: the Making of Contemporary Art. The exhibition is on view until December 4.

AMERICANANA. Everyone leaves off the last “na.” They think it’s a typo. But I wanted it to evoke the absurdity of European settlers using Indian words to name soccer clubs and suburban streets, or the new urban woodsmen butchering pigs in Brooklyn, or the countless other attempts in our culture to recover a lost past. The title also echoes Indianana, a not very well-known work by Mike Kelley, and so it’s a little tribute to him.

The artists in the exhibition are not reproducing Americana in a straightforward way. Instead they are self-consciously coming out of it and reiterating or reworking it in some new fashion––whether for some social or political purpose or just with the consciousness that this is something they are recovering. You can see it in Robert Gober’s butter churn covered in barnacles. It’s like something old that has drifted away and then returned crusted with time.

The idea for the show came out of research for my new book. I realized that there is a strain of American contemporary art that is focused on American history, production, and social values. That’s not as emphasized in the book itself––it’s a minor motif. Yet among all the social histories I covered, this was the most vibrant in terms of visual material, and it deserved an exhibition.

“Americanana” doesn’t go off on a lot of tangents. And we’re not talking about folk art––there have already been good shows about that old weird America. This is an exhibition featuring artists who are interested in common American objects—painted signs, quilts, butter churns, rubber stamps, and copper kettles—and particularly in the way they are made. These are things anyone could make without being a professional artist or going to a fancy school; though they require skill, they are not fussy, labored, or self-conscious. This is a tradition Donald Judd, for instance, wrote quite a bit about, and it’s very evident in his work. No one has really studied this subject, but Judd’s library contained many catalogues of Shaker objects and furniture, available because these things were undergoing a revival in the US as part of American taste-making in the 1960s.

Part of what drew me to this subject is that postmodernist theory was bad at addressing the fact that American history is a history of revivals, and also its traditional anti-capitalism. Today we see—correctly––America as one of the chief countries imposing capitalism on the world. But in the nineteenth century, capitalism was seen as European and as something that was being imposed on America, at the cost of the traditional independent man, the artisan and farmer, and on communities like the Shakers. It is this pre-superpower America that comes back again and again in contemporary history and culture.

I think today’s resurgence is sparked by the feeling that capitalism is collapsing. The global business culture that seemed so permanent to people ten years ago now offers limited rewards. There’s also the decline of America as it becomes one nation among many, which allows us to see more clearly the particularities of America and American history. Just as Japanese artists have attended to what is Japanese, or as Korean artists have considered Korea, American artists are now looking at their country through local lenses.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler



Views of “New Life Residency,” 2010.

Known for “New Life Copenhagen,” an initiative that paired international visitors with host families during the city’s climate summit last year, the collective Wooloo is currently operating “New Life Residency” as part of Manifesta 8 in Murica, Spain. For this project, the group has invited five artists to live and work entirely in the dark. In addition, each artist has been paired with a visually impaired assistant. Here, cofounders Sixten Kai Nielsen and Martin Rosengaard describe their latest project.

WHEN WE WERE PRESENTED WITH the curatorial investigation by Manifesta and the Chamber of Public Secrets into the history of the visual, we found it worthwhile to consider a broader view of this chronicle. We wanted to explore the impact of visuality on human history as a whole—the effects of society’s seemingly uncontrollable production and consumption of images. How could we imagine something different? What would a nonvisual world be like?

We have also been interested in the artist residency as a form. Especially now, in a financial crisis, as it’s the only way many artists can afford a studio. Yet most contemporary residency programs seem to have a very odd idea of isolating the artistic “genius” for him or her to create work. With “New Life Residency,” we wanted to do it differently––we wanted to create a situation that would not be comfortable or give room for the artists to “be themselves,” but rather the opposite.

In short, these were our initial thoughts when we came to Murcia. Then we encountered the city and began meeting its blind community. Being visually impaired in Murcia means walking through the streets to get things done, or working by selling lottery tickets, for instance, on behalf of ONCE, the local organization for visually impaired people. We began talking to these men and women, asking them if they knew about Manifesta; they didn’t. Actually, it seemed like no one locally had heard about the biennial. We began to think even more about the relation between Murcia and Manifesta. And the more we thought, the more we wanted to do something that didn’t pretend to understand the city or region. Because of course we don’t. We wanted to create a situation in which the artists were lost.

Most of the participating artists normally produce visual work. But the most important reason we selected them is for their interest in experimentation and their proposed collaboration with their assistant, as well as their ability to go beyond simply presenting a fixed work in a dark space. The selected artists all demonstrated awareness of the fact that what they initially proposed will most likely end up being very different due to the process. A lot of applicants seemed to forget that this is a residency program, not an exhibition series.

We found the participating assistants by speaking to them. ONCE has also been a tremendous help in communicating our initial idea. Funnily enough, only women wanted to take part. We spoke to several visually impaired men, but they were not interested. For us, this work is not about a challenge of darkness as much as it is a challenge of collaboration; to leave the visual production behind and see what is left. This project is also a lot about translation and communication. And what can be lost (and gained) in that process: A language barrier is present in some of the collaborations, but no more than is already the case between Manifesta and Murcia. We see this as part of the project and an integrated part of working internationally in a local setting.

All of our work explores new ways of living and working together. This has been our interest since we built wooloo.org, our very first social sculpture, almost ten years ago. Today, the website functions as a working platform for artists and cultural producers, but in the beginning, it was also an experiment in online space—long before Facebook and the social network explosion we see now. Overall, the mission of Wooloo is to explore new ways of living together on this planet. Each of our different projects is, in one way or another, a social experiment in collectivism. The antiglobalization movement has this slogan—“Another World Is Possible.” We agree, but we would like to take another angle: What world is possible? Let’s begin the testing now, please.

— As told to Dawn Chan

Sam Green


Sam Green and Dave Cerf, Utopia in Four Movements, 2010. Performance view, San Francisco Film Festival, May 2010. Sam Green.

Utopia in Four Movements is the latest critically acclaimed project by San Francisco–based filmmaker Sam Green and sound artist Dave Cerf. This “live documentary,” which explores the utopian impulse for community through the collective experience of cinema, will play at the Kitchen in New York on October 7, 8, and 9 with special musical guests the Quavers and Brendan Canty; additional screening dates can be found here.

AFTER I FINISHED THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND, I started to think about making a new film about the utopian impulse and the fact that we seem to be living in an anti-utopian time. I knew that I didn’t want to have interviews with academics or create some historical survey about utopian desires. I wanted something that was more emotional––a meditation using history to try to make some sense of the present. The four different stories I selected for this piece try to tackle that inquiry, some more explicitly than others.

I shot these four different stories over several years, edited them all together, and then showed the rough cut to people but it didn’t actually seem to make sense. No one understood the connections. I realized I needed to provide some sort of explanation and decided to try a voice-over. But I don’t really like voice-over films, so I was very hesitant to do it. When I was invited to do a presentation, I contacted Dave Cerf (who made the sound track for The Weather Underground) and asked if he would play music while I talked about the project and cued clips from the segments using PowerPoint. There was something really lovely about it. I became interested in the distinctions between a voice-over movie and a movie where someone is talking in person. There are a lot of differences, namely the live element. But what does that mean? What is it about that liveness that charms me? Then we did another presentation, and then one more, and at a certain point I realized: This form actually works!

Usually, I make a film because I’m smitten with one particular thing. All four segments of this work come from that impulse. The Esperanto episode is the most overtly about utopia. I knew vague things about Esperanto, as most people do. I thought it was invented in the 1950s or something like that. Then I came across more details about its history; it was actually created in the late 1800s, which surprised me. Its real heyday was in the ’20s and ’30s, and so it coincided with this blossoming modernist interest in utopia. People believed that by being scientific and rational we could make a radically better world. It caught my attention because, in a way, the arc of Esperanto sort of parallels the rise and fall of that modernist utopian impulse. Hopefully, the themes and histories of each of the four sections resonate with one another and create a larger set of questions and ideas. It’s nice to do something that falls between film and performance because you can pick and choose the elements you like from either tradition. One thing I’ve always hated in film is that at the end there’s the credits; in a way, it ruins the moment. You’ve got to sit there as five minutes of credits scroll by. So it has been great to have the credits printed in a program that you can look at later. There’s also an essay in the program by Rebecca Solnit, which gives some context to the piece. She touches very eloquently on the connection between utopia and having this live cinematic experience.

Figuring out where to show the work has been an interesting process. We’ve performed at film festivals, but we’re also doing screenings at art centers like the Wexner and the Walker. In the art and performance worlds, it’s been easy to work with people. But at film festivals it has been more of a challenge. Every venue we’ve worked with has been totally different, and so each show varies depending on things like the distance between the stage and the audience. It’s a complicated work––the music, words, and images have to line up.

I didn’t really have a road map for the performance, so we’ve been figuring it out as we go. I think over time we’re making it looser, but it has required a certain amount of tightness. Still, each time we try new things. When we premiered it at Sundance somebody asked a question right in the middle of the piece, which was funny and also thrilling. I like the possibility of these sorts of interventions, and we’re slowly inviting more of that.

— As told to Lauren O'Neill-Butler

Paul Chan’s costume sketches for Gregg Bordowitz’s The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera, 2010. Left: Pope. Center: Michel Foucault. Right: Cop.

Gregg Bordowitz is a writer, AIDS activist, and artist. In 1993, he produced the autobiographical documentary Fast Trip Long Drop, which considers events around his experience testing positive for HIV antibodies in 1988, and in 2004 MIT Press published a collection of his texts, The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings: 1986–2003. Here he discusses his latest project, The History of Sexuality Volume One by Michel Foucault: An Opera, which has a work-in-progress showing at Tanzquartier Wien October 1 and 2.

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, Paul Chan asked me to come by his studio to discuss an idea he had for us to collaborate on an opera based on Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. We immediately began working on it as a way to hang out and have fun together, and we quickly decided that we wanted to make something on a Wagnerian scale, maybe even something that was impossible to produce—like what Karl Kraus did with Die letzten Tage der Menschheit [The Last Days of Mankind]. We wanted to challenge ourselves, so we came up with a scenario for all three books that involves dozens of characters, from Diogenes to Martha Stewart. 

A curator in Vienna (Achim Hochdörfer) got wind of the project and asked me if we were interested in doing a work-in-progress production. I told him that it was nowhere near completion and in fact it was impossible to complete, but he was persistent. Paul and I had sketched out the story, and I had already outlined some of the melodic ideas. So I wrote a libretto in two months. Paul made five character sketches.

There are five performers in the piece—six, actually, if I count myself. Foucault is the protagonist. There’s a character called Ephebe, Foucault’s love interest who represents the man-boy love relationship that Foucault is preoccupied with in all three volumes of History of Sexuality. There’s Sigmund Freud. There’s the pope, and also a cop, who functions as the universal image of the law. The cop is sort of a dominatrix, and I think Paul had the idea of a female justice figure in mind when he sketched the costume. In Paul’s original drawings, Foucault is wearing assless chaps with a prosthetic penis that dangles below the zipper, and Kristine Woods, the costume designer, has fabricated an extremely beautiful and very large felt penis that extends pretty far below the crotch line.

So you have the three main figures that Foucault considers when addressing sexuality: psychoanalysis, the law, and Christianity, as well as the man-boy love relationship of ancient Greece. Foucault represents the main arguments of the book. Freud, the cop, and the pope are figured onstage as demons or ghosts that haunt Foucault, and they all talk over his shoulder. The only person who directly addresses Foucault and vice versa is Ephebe. It’s the only relationship in which the characters recognize each other. Their relationship not only comments on Foucault’s own reflection on homosexuality in ancient Greece; it is also the narrative motor of this version of the opera. The sixth character, which I play myself, is the California academic. His job is to introduce Foucault at a lecture. That part is very small and I don’t sing. Everyone else in the cast is fabulously talented except for me. 

The opera is going to be composed musically through improvisation with the performers, and I will be directing. There is no written music. I can’t write or read music, but I have some basic melodic ideas. There is another sound component, a kind of ambient piece that I produced on my computer with my assistant in Chicago. It will be playing at the same time as the opera is being sung; it’s more about texture than anything else. It could be a big mess! And that’s the challenge and the fun of it. I’m really delighted to be working in this way where I’m making up a piece with five other people two weeks before the performance.

I came to Vienna in the middle of the summer to cast the opera and was extraordinarily fortunate to meet performers associated with Tanzquartier Wien, which is coproducing the project with the MUMOK. I got an amazing cast. All of the performers are well known in Austria. Everyone immediately got what I was trying to do with the concept and the melody, and when I sang my version to them they said to me that they thought it sounded like medieval chant. I went to Hebrew school for a while. I didn’t mention it, but that’s largely where I’m getting the tunes from. There’s a liturgical style to it.

I wrote the libretto in such a way that I wouldn’t use direct quotations from the book. Each line counts to ten syllables: Some of it is iambic pentameter, and some of it rhymes, but not all of it. While the music is improvised, for the most part it will be set in the rehearsal. But there will be variability. I will give the performers permission to try things onstage. I’m not expecting identical performances, but I also don’t expect a large range of variation between the performances. One of the reasons I cast myself in a small role was because it occurred to me that it would be more fun to be onstage than to watch the opera.

I have here in front of me the copy of the History of Sexuality: An Introduction that I read when I was nineteen years old. It’s almost the case that there are more sentences underlined than not underlined. The opera attempts to recapture the excitement that I felt upon first reading the book, which is bound up with my romantic relationships at the time and my discovery of sexuality as a teenager approaching my twenties. My job as a director of this opera is to infuse Foucault’s ideas with all of those feelings of excitement and enthusiasm I had for the book when I was that age. It’s about Foucault as an intellectual hero. And that’s one of the reasons for this project: I’m testing my relationship to these books that were fundamental to my growth as a young person.

— As told to David Velasco