The founder of the Center for Experimental Lectures on lecture performances at the Whitney Biennial.
The staging, gestures, and language of lectures are so well known that even the barely initiated can rattle off their trappings without hesitation. Gordon Hall recently demonstrated this in conversation with a class of twenty-five students in the Arts Department of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “What does a lecture look like,” Hall began, “what do you see?” The scene was all too easily conjured: a podium, a microphone, a screen, a projector, a glass of water. As the students enumerated every detail that one might encounter at a lecture, it became clear that we have become reliant on standardization and safe formats when it comes to discourse within the arts.
Gordon Hall founded the Center for Experimental Lectures in 2011 as a response to this situation, to promote lectures as a creative form. The Center for Experimental Lectures is part of Hall’s artistic practice, a condition crucial to properly understanding the project’s emphasis on embodied experience. The itinerant platform has realized events at Alderman Exhibitions, The Shandaken Project, Recess, MoMA PS1, and has most recently been invited by the Whitney Museum of American Art to collaborate on the re-envisioning of its canonical Seminars with Artists. The first seminar took place with Zoe Leonard on March 19th; forthcoming seminars include Susan Howe on May 14th and Amy Sillman on May 22nd. Gordon Hall was in residence at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer in the fall of 2014, conducting research on the history of lecture-performances, which culminated in a new commission “Read me that part a-gain, where I disin-herit everybody.” Hall and I discuss the origins of the Center for Experimental Lectures, its current activities, and its mission.
Emily Zimmerman In conjunction with the Whitney Biennial you have been asked to re-imagine the historic Seminars with Artists. How were the seminars conducted in the past and how have you restructured them for the Biennial?
Gordon Hall The Seminars with Artists program existed from 1969 to 2004 and consisted of intimate conversations with the public led by an incredible list of 20th century artists. I have re-worked the program by dividing each into two sections: first an experimental pedagogical lecture, followed by the seminar, which is framed as a discussion of the themes of the lecture. I am thinking about the artist talk’s close historical relation to teaching, and the creative activity within both formats that this crossing has produced.
EZ And for the lectures portion of the event, what kind of guidance/directions are you giving to the lecturers?
GH When I invite an artist to give a Center for Experimental Lectures presentation, I describe the lecture as an instantiation of the artist’s work itself, and not an explanation or report on it. So, I ask that they don’t spend much of it showing images of and talking about their work directly, the way they would in a traditional artist talk, but to try to think about ways they could play with the format to perform their meaning. I encourage them to think very broadly and question all the conventions that normally determine the structure of lectures, and we do our best to make what they are envisioning happen.
EZ Can you talk about the most recent Whitney Seminar with Zoe Leonard, which was the first in the series, right?
GH Yes, Zoe Leonard was the first lecture in the Seminars With Artists series. Unlike the upcoming talks by Susan Howe and Amy Sillman, which will take place in the lower gallery lecture hall, Zoe held her lecture inside her camera obscura. We entered the space and Zoe gave an introduction in which she talked about framing the image created by the camera as a lecture, in collectively reading the image as a text, and then we cut the lights, turned off all the phones, and sat in silence for an hour reading the slowly transforming image as the sun set outside. It was a powerful experience, a meditation on the ways that we tend to privilege spoken explanation over images and experiences, and it pushed us to think about listening and reading in the most expansive way possible.
EZ So it seems that there is a larger philosophical project at work here that deals with the relationship between discourse and aesthetics. Is that true, and if so, what was the genesis of this project?
GH The Center for Experimental Lectures emerges from my sculpture and performance–based studio practice, in which I try to materially work through questions about spatial, conceptual, and social organization and the lived outcomes that they make possible or foreclose. How you speak—in what spatial and institutional context, under what organizational rubric—determines what you can say, think, even imagine. So yes, I am thinking about public lectures aesthetically, which does not mean only visually, but also as a way of highlighting the degree to which platforms determine the content that can be produced within or on them. It is an experiment in creating a framework and seeing what interesting forms of speech, embodiment, sharing, research, and discussion emerge from that. The Center for Experimental Lectures is an art project that sits alongside my sculpture and performance work, posing the same set of questions about aesthetics and world building that they do. It is about bodies and knowledge. I elaborate these ideas in my own recent lecture-performance, Read me that part a-gain, where I disin-herit everybody, which took place on a polygonal set and gave a history of the lecture-performance in terms of embodied meaning-making, especially in early postmodern dance and minimal sculpture.
EZ Doesn’t the exigency of the new or the experimental at times pose its own limitations?
GH I think that the history of art is the history of experimentation. To act like this is a new direction or a radical break with the past is a mistake. So that’s one thing—projects like this are part of art doing what it does best, which is systematically question all of its own conventions, which, I should add, is something that artists have been doing with lectures since at least the 1950s. I think there are risks if we start demanding artists to entertain us, or ask them to make new work without properly compensating them for their time, energy, and the vulnerability involved in presenting a new work for the first time. Or when we ask for experimentation but can’t actually deal with the risk of failure or incoherence involved in this.
EZ Yes, it is absolutely critical that time and energy be properly valued. Certainly experimental traditions have existed for quite a long time. In former times they went by names like avant garde, and I’m interested in the ways that the center invokes those histories. I think what you are doing with the Center for Experimental Lectures is incredibly interesting in light of what has been termed the educational or discursive turn in contemporary art. Are there particular historical antecedents that you are thinking about in terms of the intertwined history of experimentation and pedagogy?
GH My friend Jarrett Earnest has suggested that the mid-century roots of lecture performance coincide with the beginning of artists teaching in universities in a widespread way, which I think is a plausible idea—from John Cage’s lectures, to David Antin’s talk pieces, to Adrian Piper’s “Funk Lessons,” and numerous others up to the present. I am very interested in Scott Burton’s 1973 Lecture on Self, which is largely unknown but closely related to his sculptural and performance work, as well as his early work as a critic. It took place at Oberlin College: academic institutions have long provided a much needed venue for artists to try new things somewhat independently of market constraints, and the audience is thus students—it is an educational situation from the very beginning.
EZ Let’s talk about your process and how you arrived at it.
GH During graduate school I was going to lots of talks—artist talks and academic lectures. I repeatedly had the bewildering experience of going to lectures by artists or academics I was really interested in, only to be disappointed by what took place, or at least not as engaged as I wanted to be. I had already seen many of the images online that the artists showed or I was interested in someone’s abstract but had trouble listening to them read from a dense text that wasn’t written for speech. It would seem that artists, curators, and art historians would have internalized an understanding of form and content as inextricably interwoven—what you can say is entirely dependent on how you say it. And yet, the same chronological procession of slides, the same anonymous academic language and turns of phrase, lecture after lecture. Discourse that cannot do justice to the richness, beauty, and complexity of artists’ and academics’ work and thought. During this time I was also thinking about all these people whom I would love to hear lectures from who weren’t necessarily being invited to speak—musicians, nightlife performers, chefs, you name it. And, I was struggling within my own work—how to translate my research into forms that were not limited to the structures that govern academic writing, how to talk “about” my artwork in a way that did justice to it and didn’t try to explain it away. How to talk above, around, next to, and with art, rather than about it. All of these things combined to produce the Center for Experimental Lectures. The process for making the lectures is collaborative—it starts with the invitation, and then if the speaker is interested in producing a lecture, we talk and write back and forth as it is being developed. I have a list of questions that I pose—how is the lecture organized? What is happening visually? What language are you using? What is the role of images? Where is the audience? Basically the same questions that artists pose of our own and one another’s artwork and performance, but I’m asking them about lectures.
EZ Can you describe an exemplary situation that resulted from the process?
GH A typical Center for Experimental Lectures event involves two or three lectures that have some commonalities but also some productive differences. Last August’s event at The Shandaken Project was one of my favorites—Chris Domenick’s Two and Monuments Two wove together a series of focused digressions on nomadic monuments and metaphorical topology and took place next to a six-foot freestanding sculpture of a “2” and a table of exemplary small objects. Alhena Katsof's The Garden Is Overgrown figured gardens as sites of political and artistic imaginary, and was initiated by her research of Hanna Höch's cottage and garden in Berlin, where Höch buried the Dada archive during World War II. Sophia Cleary’s I Wanna Be Inside You Part Two put forth a theory of radical bottoming, using balloons and ending with some virtuosic dancing in a lit up clearing in the woods to a Selena Gomez song. The whole event occurred outside, under the Catskill Mountains. This format is typical—not the outdoor part, that happens just once a year—but the grouping of co-resonating lectures without any explicitly stated overarching theme. A bit of an aside, but one thing that's very interesting to me is how hard it is to say what these lectures are "about." It’s hard in the way that it's hard to say what an artwork is "about," which can pose difficulties in situations like these when they need to be summarized, but I like the way it throws a wrench in the constant imperative to transform creative works into sentences, to “sum it up.” In a way, these lectures are informational by way of being experiential, the results of which are harder to paraphrase.
In addition to this type of Center for Experimental Lectures event, there are also the collaborations, which are each structured differently—the collaboration with Christine Sun Kim and Recess called “Seeing Voice—The Seven Tone Color Spectrum,” which consisted of two days of non-audible lectures themed around Isaac Newton’s correlation of the octave with the color wheel, and the current collaboration with the Whitney’s education department on Seminars with Artists. I would also like to add that all Center for Experimental Lectures events are documented and transcribed—there are videos and PDFs of nearly everything on the site. Maintaining this archive so that people can revisit it, see the lectures for the first time, and use them for research is a very important part of the project.
EZ That’s an important resource to make publicly available, and I agree it is not done often enough. So switching to the future now, what would be your ideal Center for Experimental Lectures program?
GH I fantasize the most about two things that are perhaps incompatible: one would be to take it on the road and produce events in other parts of the world. The other would be to have resources to work with the speakers to design and build environments and furniture specifically for each lecture. I’d like to really think through the material dimensions of standing in front of each other and trying to communicate, what objects are and what bodies are in these situations. To further collapse this project into my sculpture and movement. To quote Douglas Dunn: “Talking is dancing. Dancing is talking.”
The Center for Experimental Lectures will host Susan Howe on May 14th and Amy Sillman on May 22nd as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
Emily Zimmerman is a curator and writer based in Upstate New York. Her research interests bring together media theory, embodiment, and existentialism. Emily is currently the assistant curator at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer. http://www.museumofmonday.com/