Karen Finley


Left: Cover of Karen Finley's Shock Treatment (2015). Right: Karen Finley, Don't Hang the Angel, 1985. Performance view, Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, New York, 1985. Karen Finley. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams.

Karen Finley is a performance artist based in New York who has long charted the political underpinnings and trauma of stigma and notoriety through her performances and writings. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of its initial publication, City Lights is reissuing Shock Treatment, her provocative collection of monologues and poetry this September. Additionally, from October 28–31, 2015, Finley will perform several of the monologues at the Barbican Centre in London. Here, Finley reflects back on this work and its significance.

IN THE TWENTY-FIVE YEARS since Shock Treatment appeared, the one thing that’s changed for me is that I’ve come to appreciate abstraction. By abstraction I mean expressions that are ambiguous and confusing but nonetheless express something important. These days I’m listening and looking to the deeper meanings behind symbols, whether through liberal sacred spaces, such as yoga studios and Whole Foods, as sites for conflict, or through tragic world events, including communal rituals in loss and melancholia.

Shock Treatment wasn’t written as a performance or a play—even though I loved performing some of those pieces. It was deliberately written in a poetic language to be read in an intimate setting. There was a purity and economy to that language that enabled me to speak out and express rage in ways I couldn’t accomplish through my performances. The work was experimental, particularly in the genesis, the structuring, and formatting of the book. Using hysteria and emotions as a source of strength was definitely important for me, particularly as a female voice. It wasn’t how people spoke on the street. My characters’ speech was imbued with a poetic language that was as elevated as it was conscious and aware. I’m interested in the electricity of being present in the moment. What’s remained precious to me in this is physicality—the sweat of bodies having all the senses activated simultaneously—whether that’s activated in paint, music, or the concept.

I spoke out because I was able to. Making that space and having that voice became a form of activism, of claiming my voice and speaking for others as well, whether it was my friends who were suffering from AIDS or victims of sexual violence. Also, as a female artist, there was inevitably a politics of identity operating within my work. It’s about repression, speaking up, and the emotions that go along and are allowed when speaking about trauma. My writing addresses the free-floating anxiety of existence, history, legacy, policy, country, and nation. It’s very difficult to find the words for such trauma. This book is about how one finds those words.

— As told to Karlynne Ejercito

Bones from Vakifli, the only remaining Armenian village in Turkey. Photo: Michael Rakowitz.

Often engaging with found objects and sculpture in his research-based practice, artist Michael Rakowitz creates installations and participatory events to instantiate counternarratives to received histories in site-specific contexts. Here he discusses The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours, 2015, his commissioned work for the Fourteenth Istanbul Biennial, which is curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Rakowitz’s project laterally approaches the subject of the 1915 Armenian genocide through the traditions of craft and architecture. The exhibition opens at the Galata Greek School on September 5 and is on view through November 1, 2015.

THE TITLE OF THIS WORK comes from the parents of a young child who was given over to a master craftsman to become an apprentice. Kemal Cimbiz, a Turkish man now in his seventies, was the youth, and the craftsman was the Armenian plaster caster Garabet Cezayirliyan, who is responsible for many of the molds, friezes, and architectural flourishes one finds throughout Istanbul. It was very rare for a Turk to be given over to an Armenian master. The Armenians were the artistic and artisanal class. As in many places, they were looked down upon. Manual labor—which included being an architect or a builder—was seen as something for the minorities. The poetic thing about these friezes, however, is that they show traces of Armenian hands and fingers, which bear silent witness to what happened during the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and after. They are still there. So the work is not just about an Armenian master—it’s about the transmission of that craft from that master to this person from the other side of the divide that gets created when we talk about Armenian history in Turkey. My project also dwells in the intersection between Kemal Cimbiz’s craft and an old Greek school in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul. Greeks were also part of the population exchanges, deportations, and discriminations—as other minorities were—in the Ottoman Empire after the creation of the Turkish state.

For this work I am going to develop new designs for plaster friezes and other architectural elements. The idea behind them is that the traumas of the histories before and after 1915 could give rise to a new kind of geometry or design that relates to or negates Art Nouveau. I will create some new molds or new casts from the old molds.

One of the reasons the old molds have survived is because they include gum arabic and animal bone. I am actually locating livestock that are descended from the Armenian farms that were confiscated after the 1915 genocide. I am inviting guests to have a big meal in the Greek school where I will serve the meat of those animals, and then we are going to grind up those bones and use them to make the new casts and new molds.

I’m always looking for political objects and artifacts that can have almost a shamanistic power. When a news story hits and there is an object related to it, instead of going to Google, I immediately try to find the news through the object.
Often I use eBay as a search engine. In fact, I’m using it right now. Am I outbid? Let me see . . .

Three seconds . . .
Two seconds . . .
One second . . .

“You won this auction!” All right! Eighty-two bucks for a dog skull from Istanbul.

I have a relationship to objects that is very much about preservation and the notion of mint condition, and that comes from collecting baseball objects and getting autographs. All of these things are hermetically sealed and kept out of direct sunlight. That inevitably builds up a certain kind of perverse desire, which is to play with the ball that has been signed by Joe DiMaggio, and to be a bit iconoclastic. There is something that interests me about breaking the vitrine. I think we need to be willing to be impolite and embrace difficulty when we are talking about traumatic subjects like war, genocide, and histories that many would rather forget.

Using these objects helps me not just to provide evidence but also to create moments where I am creating a kind of congregation of bodies, voices, and witnesses. To me, that is so much better than going to see them in a museum where they are relegated to the past and to death.

— As told to Zachary Cahill

View of “Elaine Lustig Cohen,” 2015, Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut.

Elaine Lustig Cohen is an artist, graphic designer, and AIGA medalist known for her spectacular book covers, exhibition catalogues, and collaborations with architects such as Philip Johnson and Richard Meier. Here, she talks about the intersection between design and architecture in her paintings on the occasion of a show of her early work that is on view at Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, through September 28, 2015.

MY ABSTRACTION NEVER CAME FROM NARRATIVE; it came from architecture. Even though I had many friends who were writers, I was never particularly drawn to narrative. When I finished my first paintings on view in the show, such as Centered Rhyme, I would look at them and there was always something more I wanted to explore, hence the repetition of shapes such as the diamond, the hexagon, and the parallelogram. There was a morphology to working in series like that. Part of my process did carry over to design, but none of my early design work was painted. Since in the early days of design we pasted up the images, they were manipulations of photographs, colors, and fonts. What did carry over to my paintings from the graphic work was in the sketching, because to do anything that hard-edged I had to do a sketch when I planned the paintings.

For me, painting is a combination of the flat plane and the color. When I sit and look at things, it is always about the interaction of the planes. When I was doing graphic design in the postwar period, architecture was going to save the world! We were all going to be good in life because of the space we lived it in. It’s a wonderful dream, but that was the mind-set of the time. On Alvin Lustig’s shelf, when I married him, were books by Piet Mondrian, Sigfried Giedion, László Moholy-Nagy, and Lewis Mumford. Postwar expression for me was not about individualism or the freedom of a Jackson Pollock; it was about cultural renewal in an architectonic expression.

Architecture was always a part of my informal training as an artist. When Alvin and I lived in Los Angeles, we did not go to museums. There were no museums there in those days, but during 1948 and 1949, Arts & Architecture magazine commissioned young architects to design the Case Study Houses in Los Angeles. We spent our weekends driving around and looking at Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler. That was the entertainment. We were friends with the Eameses; Alvin knew the Arensbergs, and we would go to their home to view art. From the very beginning, art for me was about this interplay with architecture.

My solo design career lasted from around 1957 to the mid-1960s, which is a short history compared with how long I have been painting, but it all started when Philip Johnson called me and said, “Get on with it! Do it.” He had hired Alvin to do the signage for the Seagram Building, but when Alvin died he had not designed anything yet. Two weeks or so later, I got the call that would lead to ongoing collaborations with Philip. I had never designed anything on my own in my life, but I did every piece: the 375 address outside, the Brasserie sign, firehose connections, switches, even things that wouldn’t be seen. It helped me survive for three years. I did all the catalogues for every museum he designed, every piece that had lettering on it. Philip was very fast and always had three ideas for every one idea you showed him, but if I stuck to my guns he would always go with my instincts.

When I started having people over to my studio, they were mainly writers—Donald Barthelme, Ralph Ellison, and John Ashbery—but there were artists too, such as Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell. Everyone was supportive, but I was still an outsider. That is the way history is written. I am still interested in painting, typography, collage, watercolor, and the computer; I still do everything. There is no line for me. You are lucky to be creative and be able to do it.

— As told to Andrianna Campbell

Lazar Lyutakov and Baba Vasa in Baba Vasa's Cellar, August 2011. Photo: Jan Machacek.

Located in Shabla, a small town near the Black Sea in northern Bulgaria, Baba Vasa’s Cellar is a small exhibition space that opened in 2002. Since then, the now eighty-seven-year-old Vasa Maneva has been running the space in her basement, with the help of an international group of artists. Every summer they plan an exhibition, which commences with a garden party. This year’s show is organized by the Vienna-based Dienstag Abend collective and will gather works by twenty-one artists, with many making their pieces on site. Here, artists Karine Fauchard and Lazar Lyutakov (Vasa’s grandson) speak about the venue. The show opens on August 8, and Baba Vasa will receive guests to the exhibition until the end of August.

BULGARIA IS not known for contemporary art. When you go to its forgotten parts you double that. Baba Vasa’s Cellar began as Lazar’s artwork, but it has evolved into a collaborative project. A collective is always in the shadow of this space, but only one person represents it and it belongs to one person: Baba Vasa.

Baba Vasa has very little personal costs, so she can afford to be generous with her guests. This project is important for her; running this space brings her energy and strength. People love the idea of her being in the center of this project since she is wise, friendly, and respected. It’s a bit romantic.

We asked Baba Vasa about contemporary art in Bulgaria, and she said (in Bulgarian): “I think about the success of Bulgarian contemporary art—I am sure it is going to happen soon. The most rewarding thing about having this exhibition space is to have you all around me and to enjoy the time with you.”

The openings have the character of a happening. A grandmother welcomes absolutely every guest personally. People come to celebrate something. Food and accommodation in Shabla are the cheapest on the Bulgarian seaside. So it is not a huge effort for our guests to make a personal investment, which is what creates dialogue. The right people are the ones who come just because they want to come. The neighbors are a part of it too. In the past, they have brought tomatoes or whatever they could to the openings. Artists see how this works and they want to share in this.

We turned down a proposal to exhibit this as a project in a museum in Bulgaria, because we are an alternative to that. We don’t need the most famous artists, and we don’t need a bigger space. We want the type of audience you can’t reach at Art Basel or when exhibiting in a commercial gallery. We are mainly interested in a local audience, like the small crew of kids in Shabla who come to the openings, but we know that this creates specific meaning that can be useful in a broader context.

The art world eats every interesting idea by repeating and developing it until it is no longer relevant. We don’t put too much value on the fact that this is a situation on the periphery. That’s just the way it happened and many qualities have emerged because of that. It could not happen in another way.

The cellar is nearly 130 square feet and six feet high, so most people can stand up in it, but tall people cannot. The house is falling apart because it is very old, but the space has a clean and neutral look when you come in so there is no compromise in what is offered. It is a white cube—a Bulgarian white cube. Last summer, Mladen Bizumic made an installation here that took the form of a library of collaborative works. This summer the Vienna-based collective Dienstag Abend have been invited. Twenty-one artists are coming, so Baba Vasa will need a lot of coffee.

The project is scaled to what is possible. It is a fine evening in the middle of nowhere.

— As told to Lisa Ruyter