From New York No Wave to Italian Autonomia: an Interview With Sylvère Lotringer

Conducted by Juliette Premmereur* on March 11, 2013.

Sylvère Lotringer is a literary critic and cultural theorist. Born in 1938 in Paris, France, he is a younger contemporary of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Michel Foucault, and is best known for bringing French theory into American literary, cultural and architectural avant-garde movements through his work with Semiotext(e), a journal he founded with a group of Columbia University graduate students in 1974.

After producing three scholarly issues on the epistemology of semiotics, Lotringer and his group staged the provocative “Schizo-Culture” conference on “Madness and Prisons” in 1975 at Columbia University, where more than 2,000 attendees witnessed showdowns between Michel Foucault, conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, Félix Guattari, feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, Ronald D. Laing and others.

In 1979 he traveled to Italy to meet with the members of Autonomia, a cultural, post-Marxist left wing political movement composed equally of intellectuals, workers, and unemployed youth. Upon his return, he published an issue of Semiotext(e) dedicated to Autonomia, with accounts by the leaders and theorists of the Autonomist movement: Antonio Negri, Mario Tronti, Franco Piperno, Oreste Scalzone, Paolo Virno, Sergio Bologna, and Franco Berardi among others. The book remains the only testimony and contemporaneous analysis that exists of the most innovative post-’68 radical movement in the West.

I asked Sylvere if he would discuss his personal history and reasons for his involvement with the Autonomists after reading the recently republished “Autonomia” issue of Semiotext(e). We discussed the enigmatic figure of Diego Cortez, the curator of New York New Wave, a 1979 exhibition at PS1 that, for the first time, showed many No Wave artists in an institutional setting and presented the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Our conversation developed from Autonomia and Diego into the No Wave art, music, and nightlife culture of New York in the 1970s, suggesting a relationship between the European Autonomist movements and the cotemporaneous New York downtown scene.


It all started with the Nova Convention in 1978. Focusing on the American avant-garde in music, film, and literature, the convention really was a celebration of legendary beat writer William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was considered a “has-been” in America at the time and didn’t even have a publisher. The homage turned into a huge event and took over the entire downtown for several days. No Wave films, performances, concerts, and talks by Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, and Burroughs took place at the Entermedia Theater on 2nd avenue and 12th street, at Irving Plaza, and at NYU. Burroughs had always been popular with the alternative scene and New York’s “no-wave” punk generation, but the event earned him a wider recognition. It was after this convention that I moved into a raw loft with Diego in the Fashion District.

Diego, an artist and curator, was a rather shady character at the time, but also the king of downtown. He was apparently living off the air and through his own ingenuity. He knew everyone, was close to all the bands, hung out with Arto Lindsay and John Lurie, and also got involved with the graffiti scene launched by Austrian artist Stephan Einz at Fashion Moda in the Bronx at the time. Diego was glamorous and by far the most dominant figure in the club scene. With Lydia Lunch, he coined the term No Wave.

We moved together to 37th Street in 1979 and shortly after I left for Italy to document the Autonomia movement. In the fall of 1977, together with Félix Guattari and his group, I had participated in the huge demonstrations of youth and unemployed that shook all of Italy. Two years later the leaders of the movement were arrested and accused of being the shadow heads of the Red Brigades. I decided to publicize their plight in America in a special Autonomia issue of Semiotext(e). I put it together with my friend Christian Marazzi, a young economist, who had then fled from Italy to New York like many young Italian autonomists. 

The current interest in Autonomia coming from United States and the art world is very recent, beginning in 2001 when Negri published Empire. I had originally tried to introduce Autonomia to the Americans left in 1980 but no one wanted to hear about it. It was too hard for both the world of art and politics to understand at the time. I first tried to organize seminars about the Autonomia movement with Telos magazine, a New Left academic publication focused on the Frankfurt School. But they were very uneasy about an issue allegedly involving terrorists and when the issue was published they ignored it.

No Wave happened in downtown New York the same year, 1979, as the Autonomia arrests in Italy. With the “Autonomia” issue, I also wanted to dispel the glamour that European terrorists had in New York at the time—the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany. Lucy Lippard wrote an article in Artforum complaining about the glamorization of violence in punk art. Their raw aesthetics, in their own way, resonated with the terror unleashed in Europe. No Wave was a neo-punk answer to the New Wave that started in the early 1970 in places like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and in the Lower East Side. Acid Rock was the preeminent music at the time, a kind of pre-punk rock with Television, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith and the Ramones, which triggered the punk wave during a tour in England at the end of the 70s. By that time it was centered on The Mudd Club, which was owned by the painter Ross Bleckner and co-directed by Steve Mass, Diego Cortez and downtown rock star Lydia Lunch.

It was in this club that whole scene met every night, artists, downtown filmmakers, musicians… But really it was so loud that no one could ever talk with each other. Just dancing tamong this crowd was meaningful enough. We all knew each other and the was a sense of togetherness.

The Soho art world then was very small and made up of no more than 120 artists and a few galleries. They were living in raw lofts around The Kitchen on Broome Street, which introduced video in New York. Artists then resisted commercialism in every possible way. Only when they were touring in Europe did they get some attention. They were living in precarious conditions, but they didn’t mind it then. They were making up a tight and self-supportive community and we didn’t much care for outside recognition.

Semiotext(e) had no money to publish the “Autonomia” issue, so Diego organized an art auction at Anina Nosei gallery, an Italian gallery on Prince Street in Soho that also happened to represent Michel Basquiat at the time. Diego was his friend and “curator.” He didn’t know much about the politics of Autonomia and told the daughter of an Italian general whom he met at a party at Anina Nosei’s (Basquiat’s gallerist) what the auction was for. She immediately told Anina that she would put her in jail for that next time she would be in Italy if she held the auction or anything of the sort. As a result, she cancelled the auction and returned the works to Diego, who sold them instead.

The “Autonomia” issue was made directly after “Schizo-Culture.” Kathryn Bigelow, who was Richard Serra’s intern, showed him the mockup of the new issue and he said that he didn’t like it. Richard Serra was prominent in the art world and everyone in the design team got very upset.

Autonomia: Post-Political Politics originally published by Semiotext(e) in 1980, New York. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi.

Autonomia: Post-Political Politics originally published by Semiotext(e) in 1980, New York. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi.

But it didn’t last for long. One week later Serra admitted that his first reaction had to do with the fact that other artists like Phil Glass and Steve Reich were interviewed for the issue, and not him. And he actually liked the issue, which had a very “high punk conceptual” feel. The following issue, “Italy: Autonomia: Post-Political Politics,” designed by Diego Cortez, was more conceptual since it re-appropriated the layout of a manual in Biology published by the MIT Press. It looked very clinical, in contrast to its highly political, neo-terrorist content. The idea once more was to give political credibility to the autonomists. The issue looked like a manual meant to be taught in class, and this is what actually happened some twenty-five years later. It has become very popular now both in the art world and among American radicals.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s New York was finally rescued from bankruptcy thanks to a five-year plan that allowed banks to finance New York renewal and deliver loans for real estate. The context quickly changed and New York soon became a financial capital and a showcase for the entire world. Artists who had been occupying huge downtown lofts with cheap rents had to relinquish them. Our 5,000 square feet loft in the Fashion District, for which we paid $300 a month suddenly went up to $2,500 and we had to give it up. Uptown and downtown, until then separate, started mixing at night in the clubs. The Soho group of artists lost its centrality with expressionist art proliferating in the East Village and fashionable shops replacing rough lofts. The No Wave, neo-punk scene with a lively production of no-budget films didn’t last for much longer. Art galleries multiplied and being an artist became an enviable, parent-subsidized profession.

Diego had also been part of Colab, a collective of young artists founded in 1977, with the film documentarist Charles Ahearn and his wife, the painter Jane Dickson, introducing hip hop and graffiti to the New York scene. Seth Tillet and Diego Cortez organized on E. 4th Street a concert of No Wave rock music, which, for the first time, mixed young punk artists from the East Village and conceptual artists from Soho. Jane Dickson was also instrumental in organizing the Times Square Show in 1980, an anti-commercial, open exhibition of Colab artists on 42nd Street, in the heart of the New York porn district. A few months earlier they organized in a vacant building the timely The Real Estate Show in response to the harsh economic realities facing tenants in New York. The art galleries were suddenly booming, and so did the art auctions. The East Village art scene became very fashionable and the media helped it peter out in the span of two years, ending in 1985.

Semiotext(e) has been part of the downtown art and music scene after the resounding “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University in 1975, where I tried to connect the (then unknown) French theorists Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault to the New York art and music scene—John Cage, William Burroughs, Richard Foreman. But the encounter was marred by many incidents and political provocations and it took another 10 to 15 years before French Theory actually penetrated American culture.

Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” issue is being re-issued in a “box” together with the transcriptions of the original conference and a detailed account of the events. The issue first came out in 1978, in the middle of the Nova Convention that Semiotext(e) organized around writer William Burroughs, with the entire underground American artistic scene, from Patti Smith to Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Frank Zappa, Blondie and Sid Vicious participated. It was the very last time that so many artists from the American counter-cultural world had a chance to meet.

*Juliette Premmereur is a second-year student in Columbia University’s MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program and is currently writing her thesis on 1970’s No Wave. She studied under Sylvère Lotringer as an undergraduate student of Barnard College. 


between Charles Stankievech* and Tim Johnson*

Tim Johnson: For an artist who has investigated military outpost architecture, I suspect Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation must provide an especially interesting site.  When you learned that you would be coming to Marfa, did you intend to engage with this particularly mixed history, where art has come to inhabit a former military base, or did your recent project HOMELAND SECURITY develop independently?

Charles Stankievech: Marfa drew me as artist because of its complex history: as a long-standing border town, the history of Donald Judd’s vision and the sublime landscape.  I wasn’t exactly sure what I would be creating before coming, as is usually the case.  I want to be as sensitive to a place as possible and be in a location for a certain amount of time before it becomes a place of production—this is out of respect to the community as well as to allow for a depth in the work.  In this way, preliminary research can only act as intuition.  I was also in Marfa on a research residency and so there was no pressure to produce anything—an attempt to combat the artist as tourist.

TJ: One of the aspects of this work that interests me is the way it deploys two old-fashioned elements, the bug zapper, whose resemblance to the street lamp lends it an almost romantic appeal, and the grid, which we frequently associate with Modernism.  How do these things relate to the contemporary system of homeland security, which I think of as being extremely technologically advanced?

CS: Unlike the Cold War and its interfaces—such as the radar infrastructure of the DEW Line—contemporary conflict is asymmetrical: be it overseas or along the Southern Border of the US where Marfa is located.  Other than say the public milestones of the arms race, military strategy is not normally strictly linear.  It’s a complex game with required redundancies, constant technological modification, shifting allies, continual adjustment to different theatres and the reality of cost-benefit analysis always in flux.  The decades-long conflict and multiple players in Afghanistan or the engagement with Mexican drug cartels illustrate this, as you know.  So while technology is always advancing and there is something frightening in some newer forms of “war at a distance” (to use a title from a brilliant video by Harun Farocki), the far more frightening development post 9-11 is the loss of civil liberties under legislation such as the Patriot Act, the founding of the Homeland Security umbrella, Executive Assassination without “due legal process” and the bureaucratic establishment of the War on Terror.  In an email written to me after we presented HOMELAND SECURITY and after I had already described the work as a “matrix,” Gregory Whitehead (who has been following for quite some time the dark rhetorics of the US government and interviewed me here), wrote to inform me of the recent discovery of Obama’s “disposition matrix”: a new euphemism for the executive ability to kill targets based on a bureaucratic workflow.  The “grid” in the killing fields is about as outdated as 1984 by George Orwell—in other words, sadly not at all.  What once were temporary measures and government overreach in the name of emergence for national security is steadily again and again becoming policy for the long haul—both affecting overseas operations and, sadly as most American’s don’t realize or don’t care, more and more domestically.

TJ: To make visible the invisible forms of monitor and control is one aspect of the piece that interests me.  I also think of the regular passage of Border Patrol vehicles through the town, and really, right past the installation.  The piece also makes visible that which has become invisible through habit and a sense of something like relief, which is based on the economic benefit of jobs and general expenditure on the part of ICE / the Border Patrol in a small town with a struggling economy, a sense of relief which works to suspend any desire to criticize or even consider their actual role in a community, and by extension the country.

CS: For the last 100 years, Marfa has relied on a military presence for its existence.  Fort Russell / Camp Marfa from the beginning of the 20th century has supported the existence of the town economically, and even when the base was threatened to be closed, the town lobbied Washington to keep it open.  Due to some serendipity with car trouble I had the fortunate experience of a casual conversation with two Homeland Security officers at ironically the remote PRADA Marfa false store / artwork.  For over an hour we talked about their job, their prime directives, what a daily routine was like and where they came from before being posted in Marfa.  Usually, one interfaces with such officers (and in fact I did with these exact officers several times later) at the internal checkpoints throughout the border zone, and in these circumstances the power relations are quite hierarchical.  But in this candid “hanging out” I learned a lot of the behind-the-scenes and psychology of such personnel that was eye opening for me—such as the reality of the paycheck and the link to politics.

Interestingly, the Chinati and Judd Foundations also play the same role in the town—especially when it comes to those involved in the arts.  There is an orthodoxy established, and hopefully a piece like HOMELAND SECURITY offers a certain satire that doesn’t directly critique but uses an oblique tactic.  There is of course a long history of playing the court jester.

TJ: Yes, there is a way in which the beauty of the lights can entrance a viewer or visitor and only the occasional electrical charge, as an insect enters the cage, disrupts or unsettles the way we become accustomed to the low buzz of the machines.  There is that aspect of attraction that resembles distraction at work in this piece.

CS: The fieldwork HOMELAND SECURITY looks inviting from afar, as does the concept of National Security—it seems like a good idea and possesses good public relations capital, but when you’re in the matrix, the glow and invisible electrical field can turn offensive easily.  One of the paradoxes in contemporary politics and the media is how polarized reality is between secrecy and spectacle.  A möbius loop has formed where policy appears only accountable as spectacle and inversely is hiding a secret.  Indeed the public sphere has become attraction for distraction.  The paradox has twisted so far these days that even secrecy is spectacle itself.  Euphemisms are stenography—secret writing—where images and press conferences are dazzling smoke screens for dark operations far more radical than the previous administration.  Congress might not agree on anything, but the trajectory of black ops, redacted spending lines in budgets, and “exceptional” exercises march on despite any disagreements in the public forum.

I’m curious why you were interested in producing HOMELAND SECURITY with your gallery?

TJ: I wanted to produce HOMELAND SECURITY because it raises a lot of difficult questions, many of which are postponed or totally avoided here in Marfa.  And because I want to bring the Border Patrol “installations” more fully into the conversation about the culture and economy of the area.

CS: Before running Marfa Book Co. (a bookstore, art gallery and Marfa’s primary venue for cultural programming), you worked in Juarez particularly with issues of border control and immigration.  Can you tell me a little bit about this?

TJ: When I graduated from college, I moved to El Paso to work for an organization called Annunciation House, which is based on the principles of the Catholic Worker tradition.  Their work consists in providing emergency housing to recently arrived undocumented immigrants who have few or no resources and whose presence is termed illegal.  At the time that I worked there, Annunciation House consisted of about twenty people operating three shelters, or what they call “houses of hospitality,” two in El Paso and one in Juarez.  They also operated a small “house of solidarity” in the squatter community of Anapra whose purpose, to the extent that such a thing could be considered purposive, was simply to keep an active connection with that community, many of whose residents had once passed through one of the other buildings.  I lived on both sides of the border, first in El Paso and later in Anapra.

CS: What was your opinion of the border situation?

TJ: For me, the border is a complex system whose primary purpose is simple: to control labor markets.  The incredible rise of immigrants from Mexico, part of which I experienced during the two years I lived on the border, and I want to add, during a few years after that, working for another organization in central Texas, coincides with the passage of NAFTA and the consequent collapse of the Mexican agricultural economy.  Millions of people moved north when they couldn’t compete with the industrial farming practices of the major agribusinesses.  They were expected to take jobs in the newly introduced factories in the north of Mexico, many of which are owned by, or provide products to, major U.S. corporations.  You have a situation where the televisions and refrigerators and all these unique products can move freely across the border, but the people who make them cannot.  Plus, of course, the wages in those factories, which are the incentive for the corporations, are considerably lower than they would be in the U.S., whereas the cost of living at the border is almost the same on both sides.  So, the question of whether a worker can afford the product they make is secondary to questions about their basic survival.  In Anapra, most people live in houses made of pallet wood discarded by the factories, with newspaper insulation and tin roofing.  A further fact to consider is that the factories pay few state or local taxes, so there’s not enough money to pay for improvements to infrastructure or social services. Any fool can see you’ll need a fence and some advanced surveillance equipment to prevent people from seeking a better life, especially when they’re being forced to suffer so that a very small group of people will benefit financially.  That may seem crass, but it’s a crass situation, and one that’s supported by some very crass class and racial stereotypes.

CS: Do you think the situation has changed since this period?

TJ: Yes and no.  The impact of the recession has resulted in a significantly smaller number of people coming to the U.S. to find jobs.  This is what recent figures suggest.  However, the apparatus of border security continues to expand, that is to say the militarization of the border, continues.  The introduction of drones to our area is only one development among many.  There is the border wall, of course, which maps the exact shape of our madness, if you ask me.  Presumably we are trying to “naturalize” the flora and fauna of the region, to grant them a nationality according to their whereabouts when the wall is raised.

CS: While we installed the main version of HOMELAND SECURITY as a fieldwork outdoors in the “agora” of Marfa, I also had a “prototype” running inside the white cube of the gallery at Fieldwork for a couple months and which now is also being shown indoors at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin.  When installed indoors—particularly in a storefront space, as was the case at Fieldwork—there is this surreal détournement.  Severely hampered in its intended purpose, the ultraviolet light of the bug zapper still attracts a plethora of insects, but they are for the most part kept out by the window.  This extra barrier coated at night by bugs became an interesting metaphor for not only the game of the art world with the gallery’s white cube as “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” (Hemingway) but also the contemporary American Dream vs. reality of immigration. I’d be curious what your experience was working on both sides of the border dealing with the full spectrum of social classes from aliens to celebrities.  What were the paradoxes you’ve witnessed?

TJ: Well, the American Dream is but one mythology within the greater system of capitalism, something I am very much inside, as are the people who live in Anapra.  Still, there is a limit, a boundary between two communities in this part of the world.  The presence of the bug zappers in the agora, perhaps our central communal space, reminds us that every activity here, including the festivals and so forth, exclude a significant number of people, many of them living nearby.  The bug zapper in the window at the gallery raises the issue in a different way.  There, it resembles all the promises of glass, the shop windows which, giving us an image, give us another object of desire, something charged with all sorts of ideas about pleasure and leisure.  Being hampered in its purpose, does the zapper exert itself as art or does it demonstrate an uneasy affiliation among objects of art and commerce?  For me, the terms of commerce dictate the forms of security.  And, of course, the tools of security are significantly objects of commerce, as anyone who lives in a small town along the border knows.  We need look no further than the competition among firms to build the border wall.

A further, and not unrelated, question that the two sites pose for me concerns this dichotomy of the interior and exterior.  Is an artist who works outside of the gallery, say for example, in an unconventional or public space, outside the system of art?  That is to say, are there works of art that are unaffected by the commerce of art, which the gallery represents?  Perhaps this is a contemporary version of asking Duchamp’s famous question about whether there are works that are not of art.  Or perhaps it is the same question?

CS: There are definitely artists who work outside of the gallery system or the contemporary art world.  I make no claim to this at all.  HOMELAND SECURITY was produced by your commercial gallery, backed by three European Academies via Fieldwork (ESBA—Nantes, HEAD-Genève and Gerrit Rietveld Academie—Amsterdam) as well as in discussion with the Chinati Foundation in regards to overlapping programming during their open house weekend, so even if its in a public space that hadn’t previously been the site of exhibition, it’s still very much supported by these institutions.  This doesn’t mean the work cannot participate in critique.  The premise of democracy and a free society is the ability to critique from the inside.  I think to many people’s surprise however, public art is often much more tame than gallery art since it must be approved by people not normally versed or comfortable with the “professional” art world, which is usually quite far from the general public—be it the economics of collectors, the lifestyle of the artist or the theoretical contextualization.  While working outside the gallery allows for a more direct contact with the general public, I believe official public art has a much harder time engaging the public due to shallow conventions.  Public Art needs to function on the subconscious level to avoid remaining pure spectacle.

It’s interesting you mention Duchamp as he was actually influential in making this piece—but I don’t mean only in the general quotidian art strategy of the “readymade” which re-appropriates an everyday object and sublimates it into the aesthetic sphere by giving it a name within the art economy.  I mean in a more specific but indirect manner—through the poetic treatment of the idea of geometry.  HOMELAND SECURITY being created in Marfa was of course initially influenced by Donald Judd’s gridded installations—particularly the scale and spacing of the aluminum box work at the Chinati Foundation.  It’s worth noting the poetic and political tension which exists with Judd.  As formal as Judd’s art is, it was significant for me to discover during my research in Marfa how political he was: e.g. the reasons for establishing Chinati, organizing anti-Vietnam demonstrations, involvement in local politics in NYC and his strong words about the Border.  But back to Duchamp, during my research I of course had to work my way through Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—an epic novel about the violence in the region.  Bolaño inscribes an interesting gestural quote that seems central to the entire book since it appears more than once and thus acts as a nexus between the individual sub-books.  This pictorial intersection of narrative tangents is the re-enactment of Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade (1919)—a geometry book hung on a clothesline and left exposed to the elements.  This political act by Bolaño via his character Professor Amalfitano of taking an art world gesture and repeating it across the ocean in the fictional “Juarez” resonated with me.  In turn, this gesture of suspending geometry in the air was one factor of influence for me in creating a suspended geometry in HOMELAND SECURITY.   For me, the readymade was always a Trojan horse.

During the run of the exhibition, you received a letter from the real Department of Homeland Security about compliance issues related to your business (bookstore/gallery).  Beyond the eerie coincidence of timing, what was your reaction to this letter?

TJ: I received the letter as an encouragement from the Department of Homeland Security to talk clearly and publicly about the exhibition and the questions it raises for me.  The text of the letter sends a remarkably mixed message, equal parts invitation and threat.  Here is an example, which I have treated as a poem, marking the line breaks: “U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) / is pleased to invite you to a free seminar on compliance.”  What is so free about compliance?  And then there’s the line, “What is IMAGE and how can it help you?” which is underlined like a hyperlink, which, obviously, since it’s a paper letter, we cannot follow.  That kind of incoherence on the part of a national agency, especially an agency charged with enforcing some aspect of the law, is terrifying.  What do you think of the letter?

CS: I wish we had this invite before the show started so we could have used it for our invitation!  Ironically, we didn’t send out a paper invite but only sent an e-invite with actual clickable hyperlinks.  Serendipitously, the only paper advertising we had were the risograph posters on (unbeknownst to me) fittingly yellow paper.

TJ: Showing a version of the work in Berlin, has the work changed for you in its new setting, so far from the border?  Have you given it a new title?

CS: No, I did not give the work a new title nor reconfigure it, since a white cube version of the piece existed first.  I was also pleased to be able to exhibit the work abroad and outside the domestic territory of the United States.  The irony of America’s Homeland Security is that it is part of a mechanism that extends far beyond the territory of home along the lines of the “Preemptive Defense” strategy.  Already back in the 1970s Marshall McLuhan called America a “World Environment” and there is an interesting double articulation in the State Department’s functioning: the questionable legitimacy of their operation beyond their borders transgressing other nation’s sovereignty countered by their convenient extra-territorial locations like Guantanamo Bay and other detainment sites for Extraordinary Rendition.  The dance of breaking international law while trying to keep their own domestic laws (or at least breaking their domestic laws while not at home).  Berlin was an interesting place to remount the piece for several reasons, not only because of the city’s general history but because of the building itself; the House of World Cultures, where it is to be installed, is a contemporary art space built by an American student of Walter Gropius commissioned by the Benjamin Franklin Foundation and given as a gift by the U.S. Government to the city of Berlin in 1957.  Originally called “Congress Hall” and erected directly beside the border with East Berlin and thus designed to be seen from the “other side,” the building was strategically built by America as a symbol of Freedom.  The catalogue for the Berlin exhibition also reproduces documentation of the original fieldwork in Marfa with a text by the curator, so the references and inertia in the work is sustained if one feels this is necessary.  I also feel the publication I made (co-published by your Marfa Book Co. and Paper Pusher, Toronto) is available no matter where the work is and helps establish a critical apparatus of meaning for the work that ties back to the tradition of American ideologies associated with the piece.  In short, the work could be displayed anywhere because Homeland Security has become an international brand based on the myth of the border. 

*Charles Stankievech is a Canadian artist whose fieldworks and performances have been presented internationally. He is also a curator as well as a founding faculty member of the Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City. 

 *Tim Johnson (b. 1978, Nashville, USA) lives in Marfa, Texas, where he owns and operates the Marfa Book Company, a bookshop; gallery; film, music and performance space. He is also a poet, translator and Contributing Editor for the poetics journal Evening will Come. From 2000–2006 he worked for Annunciation House and Casa Marianela, Texas-based houses of hospitality dedicated to providing emergency shelter to recently arrived Undocumented Immigrants. From 2000–2002, as director of border education for Annunciation House, he lived in Anapra, Chihuahua, a squatter community on the outskirts of Juarez, where he hosted visiting activists, journalists and students, and worked with various community organizations, including Hormigas De La Comunidad En Desarollo and Taller De Las Tazas.

Process of Crystallization: an interview with Aki Sasamoto on process, practice, and presentation

by Daisy Nam*

Since 1976 when Brian O’Doherty’s essay, “Inside the White Cube” was published in ArtForum, artists and curators continue to discuss the ramifications of an artwork’s content relative to its context in gallery spaces and systems. On a balmy day this April, I met with artist Aki Sasamoto in her studio to speak with her about “in and out of the white cube,” the topic for this issue of Interventions.  I was intrigued by her take on the topic, because her performances have taken place in various contexts, always managing to be engaging, challenging, and thought-provoking.  Over green tea we talked about her process, practice, and presentation.  The interview is divided into four topics:  Intentionally Switching Sites; Process & Lifespan of the Work; Objects and Performance; and Tools.


Daisy Nam:  Do you think about the “white cube” when you are conceptualizing your work?

Aki Sasamoto: For me, it’s still important to work off of definitions. It seems useful especially when you hop around different mediums like I do. When you’re working in a new way, you start with the definition and then how to get beyond that. So the theater has the black box as something to work off of and in visual art it’s the white cube.  But before, it used to be the proscenium theatre or the salon.

DN: Do you, and if so, how do you alter the content in relationship to these formats and modes of presentation?

AS: I like to work both inside and outside simultaneously, not in the same given time but with the same piece.  Moving between different sites makes the content of the piece crystallized.  What’s the difference between a poetry jam or a performance in a gallery? I intentionally try to bring out the essence of the piece in these contexts.

DN: That reminds me of the piece I saw about mosquitoes, Skewed Lies. I saw one version in that exhibition in Miami that Rirkrit Tiravanija curated and the original version in MoMA PS1’s Greater New York. In Miami, the audience was a lively but odd mix of people – artists, curators, collectors, a lot of just partygoers (it was during Art Basel Miami Beach) – but they collectively understood and connected with your work even though it was a different context from PS1.

AS: For PS1, I had to make the work site-specific because the site, which was a basement, was so strong.  I made a choice: I had to either serve the site or just delete it and pretend it was a white cube. In the basement, I used the physical site to talk about “underground” vs. “above ground” worlds as topics in my performance.  Even though in the Miami space, which was in an office building, I could still talk about underground activities or darkness conceptually, “underground-ness” divorced from the literal relationship to the site and stood alone conceptually. It’s an example of crystallization of work. The content gets clearer, when you switch between sites whether inside or outside the white cube.

I need to create that distance.  I need to be a stranger to the work to notice.  I need to intentionally switch the sites, the background. And if I do the same things in the street, it will still work. In that sense, I’m performing like a street performer in the gallery space.

DN: Do you perform on the streets still?

AS: Not so much anymore, but I occasionally do neighborhood open mics and Sunday poetry readings. The point is that nobody who knows me is there. When I travel, I really like these kinds of places or just joining people who do perform on the streets.

DN:  Going back to the audience, what’s your relationship with the audience?

AS: I do notice that I don’t perform for them or to them. I’ve had a couple incidents where I accidentally bumped into people with my objects while performing; it made me realize that I’m not focusing on them. I just exist as an object and they have to go around me.


DN: Is there a final work when you have multiple performances with the same topic?

AS:  I’m not doing works in progress towards a finished piece and there’s no final work. I don’t really have an epiphany or a peak. But when the concept gets crystallized or crystal clear, I get bored.

DN: And do you come back to the piece years later?

AS: That’s when it gets interesting… the life of the piece.  I just made a book, Molasses. It’s another medium I’m working with that exists beyond the theater space or gallery space.

DN: I just read it online!

AS: Nice! I’m interested in the medium because with a book you can come back to the work. You’re not going to read the book repeatedly in one year. With “masterpieces” like Shakespeare (for me, it’s Camus) you read it as a teenager and then as a 20-year-old and it’s completely different.  I want artwork to be like that too.

DN:  I noticed that too when reading your new book. I remember talking about certain things and then seeing them within the context of a book – the eyeglasses, for example.

I remember when you were figuring it out as a sculptural component in your   performance and you were wondering how you were going to make it.  And then I saw it as a photograph (the eyeglasses were wrapped around the punching bag) that accompanied text. It opened up a different dimension of the work for me.

AS: Ah yes. The boxing ring is amazing…


DN: Your work tells a story through a mix of sculptural and performative elements, especially movement.

AS: “In and out” is interesting not just when talking about a site, but in terms of medium too. I’m trying to talk about things that exist between human beings and objects.  I have to physically move in between them to make sure it exists.  And so it doesn’t get essentialized in one object and event.

Performance is often considered as an event usually, so I fight that. I have to perform a work many times so it doesn’t become just one opening night performance. I become part of the installation and need to perform multiple times.

DN: In your piece for the 2010 Whitney Biennial, some people thought it was just an installation – they only saw the objects in between your scheduled performances. The objects were active in a sense because the sounds of the rooms were picked up on microphones and recorded and then the live streamed in your performances.

AS: I think there has to be 100% from both the object and performance.  But when I see objects reminiscent of performance, I just feel left out. I’m not going to credit just the objects as a performance. I see it like this with performative work: if I didn’t experience it, I don’t want to be pulled in by the objects.  Those objects are not the art, it’s the art world or art systems.

DN: That reminds me of this exhibition I learned about at MOCA in Los Angeles in the 90’s, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object.  The show presented the objects from and around performances – drawings; photographs; film and video documentation; and ephemera.  Value and emphasis were on the objects and not the performance itself. I didn’t see the show, but it sounds quite depressing… all these objects dead without action.  That missed-out feeling you were talking about.

AS: To me, it seems that the performance is better than the reminiscent objects. I don’t disapprove of exhibitions like the MOCA show, but it has to be excellent.  The objects in a sense have to function as a bridging medium to the imaginative world of the other.  It’s the same as the museum of natural history or anthropology.  For example, the tools that ancient people used in the Stone Age make me curious. When I look at the objects, I want to be taken somewhere far away, a different culture in order to stimulate the imagination.

DN: Could I ask what you would do if someone wanted to acquire your Whitney piece for instance?

AS: How I’m approaching it, if someone wanted to support the work, it comes with the whole installation with the performance.

DN: And what do you think about re-performance with actors, for example Marina Abramović’s MoMA show?

AS: It would be really hard to not have my personal experience and so I don’t think I could have actors. There’s no action without my experience. But I think that’s how the book can function – it gives the ability to come back to the work, and gives another point of access other than the installation.  But documentation and video doesn’t work for me since I’m not a video artist really.


DN:  Could you tell me more about Mexico where you just were?

AS:  Yes, l was there last month.  I performed in this funky gallery that’s in an exclusive club, kind of like SoHo House.  I did a TED-like talk to 100 businessmen. But it was still similar to a street performance, a shift in context, since I dealt with people I don’t know.  I know I really have to crystallize the content because they didn’t share a certain jargon or have common knowledge of what performance should be. In my performance I talked about how to use an idea to make something happen. I used myself as an example as an artist and how I make things; they could apply this example to their endeavors to succeed.

I talked about my trip to India as an artist chosen by the Japan Foundation.  The government official at the Foundation told me that he was in the culture department in foreign affairs just as a job and not because he necessarily liked art. He wanted to use art to make Japanese foreign affairs with countries run smoothly. He told me, “For me, you’re just a tool.”  I loved that idea! Because I wasn’t in the usual sticky conversations: “What’s the value of art?” or “What kind of art is cool or not?” so I just focused on becoming a better tool.  I could then face my process of making art more genuinely.  So that’s the discussion I had with the businessmen… ok let’s talk about tools. So I had real tools in my hand.

DN: What kind of tools did you use?

AS: Ice picks! I dressed up in a suit and in between my graphs, presentation, and discussions I popped balloons with the ice pick. This kind of performance I can do in the street too.  And I want the piece to be like that.

Aki Sasamoto lives and works in New York.  In addition to her art practice, Sasamoto co-founded and co-directs Culture Push.

*Daisy Nam is a first year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University, and also organizes Public Programs at the School of the Arts.