Erik Moskowitz and Amanda Trager, Cloud Cuckoo Land, 2008, video excerpt.
Erik Moskowitz and Amanda Trager, The Story of Elfranko Wessels, 2011, video excerpt.
Craig Kalpakjian I’m interested in the way you use music; the vocal storytelling. Do you see yourself in relation to someone like Robert Ashley and to an avant-garde music tradition?
Erik Moskowitz Not in particular, but we are working with narrative through the use of song. The voice is so expressive that it becomes musical in and of itself.
Amanda Trager Joan Jonas spoke her lines in that Ashley piece [Celestial Excursions, from 2000].
EM For me, her way of speaking and interacting with the music became emotionally heightened and accessible—like a song.
CK The theatrical stylization of everyone singing the lines together evokes a Greek chorus.
AT Technically, it’s just the two of us singing the lines of all the characters.
EM The idea for the artists as chorus was to incorporate a kind of unreliable narrator who may, actually, be the central focus of the piece. The chorus acts as something the viewer can hold onto while the narrative runs off the rails.
CK The scenes in Cloud Cuckoo Land with your characters editing the video of themselves make me think of Gimme Shelter showing Mick Jagger in the editing room as he goes over footage of his concert where the person in the audience gets stabbed. Altamont is always seen as the end of the ’60s, the “death of the Woodstock Nation;” one of the moments when it all crashed.
EM Growing up in the art world I witnessed a similar crash of idealism in New York’s downtown art scene. There had been a notion of “This community is special. Being a part of it is special. And then there are those other people—”
AT Like my people on the Upper East Side?
EM “—and they’re outside of this community.” But the notion of a difference between the art world and another world was obliterated at a certain point. I think that unspoken hierarchies are common to supposedly utopian communities. A line is drawn that separates something from something else. Initially, that was my interest in this project: to look at that line and how it gets fucked up. So we created characters that are specifically geared toward making a mess of the situation.
AT In Cloud Cuckoo Land the character I play is really uptight. As she joins this community it’s revealed that she can’t deal with Erik’s character. He’s completely accepted by the others although he’s walking into things while reading books or crawling into bed with couples in the middle of the night so he can cuddle. Creating this piece, I definitely envisioned my actual self with my own hang-ups in this scenario. I wouldn’t have done well. Another thing about this return-to-the-commune story: it’s unfolding in the present moment. There’s a dovetailing of the manner in which people today, including artists—with all of their neurotic, super-controlling attitudes—are implausibly trying to do something inspired by the ’60s.
EM Looking at this kind of society through a lens and the editing process—and that’s why I like the Altamont reference—relates to the panopticon, a kind of violence, which is somewhat inherent in the imaging process itself.
CK In Gimme Shelter there’s a sense of trying to figure out “what happened;” analyzing or reliving a trauma.
EM Or retelling the story of personal trauma. Maybe it’s more of a personal message than a social statement. This relates to our latest piece, The Story of Elfranko Wessels, where our persona as an “artist-couple” is enmeshed with our subject’s socio-political struggles. We emphasize the home as opposed to a site of production.
AT That’s also from the ’60s, mostly feminism: the personal being the political.
EM But specifically in terms of the art world—at this point the difficulties associated with institutional intervention feel overwhelming, though the need to do so seems more pressing than ever. Questions which come out of addressing an audience seem easier to deal with on a personal level. Relating the issues around Amanda and I making a particular work and presenting it in a particular way feels like a manageable way of looking at the situation.
CK This returns to what you were saying earlier about an us-versus-them mentality. The idea of defining a group or community by drawing a line is very much like Carl Schmitt and his politics of the enemy. This outside or Other complicates the usual ideas of utopia in an interesting way, as does the crisis or the external catastrophic event in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Do you know Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf?
AT We talked about that film a lot.
EM His films are amazing. Not just the way they tell stories but the ways in which they interact with the cinema audience. He’s really adept at addressing the context and architecture of the cinema and how it’s expected to operate.
CK Like when the character in Funny Games addresses the camera (and the viewer) directly, breaking the fourth wall.
AT The self-reflexivity. But if you’re not interested in those things, there’s always just the story itself. That notion is attractive to us; there being different entry points to our work.
CK Erik, you performed with the avant-garde theater ensemble The Wooster Group, right?
EM I went to an alternative public school in the West Village. When I was in elementary school, we never had to do anything, literally. We would come to class and the teacher would ask: “What would you all like to do today?” Eventually I kind of stopped going because I got involved with The Wooster Group. I’d go to school for half the day and then Spalding [Gray] would pick me up and bring me down to the Performing Garage for rehearsal. Talk about utopian refuge!
AT When we bought the building we now live and work in, there was an offhand notion to realize utopian dreams, you know, in a small way. Our first tenant downstairs was a theater company from a Bushwick high school mentored by The Wooster Group! They’d use the space to rehearse and to present classics like Shakespeare to people in the neighborhood and beyond. Initially it was an amazing experience, but it turned into a kind of hell. The kids were given the keys to the space to rehearse but they’d use it on weekends to party until 4 a.m. I mean, a lot. So it was like: the utopian dream is over—I need to get some SLEEP.
EM They did this version of Paradise Lost where they used the building as a physical metaphor: they were on the ground floor but they referred to the upstairs (our space) as heaven and the basement as hell. There was this little trapdoor they used to descend to hell. It was genius. It pointed out the ridiculousness of us being up here, playing the landlords, the artists.
—Craig Kalpakjian is an artist working in New York. He has exhibited in The Whitney Museum of American Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He has previously published an interview/conversation with the writer Sarah Kessler in the online journal Triple Canopy and is currently working on another with Arkady Plotnitsky, author of The Knowable and The Unknowable and other writings on the relationships among literature, philosophy, and science.