Part of the series In the Open: Art & Architecture in Public Spaces, filmed in Lawrence Weiner’s studio in Greenwich Village, Spring 2010. Following the interview is an unedited transcript of the video.
Weiner's Studio in Greenwich Village, New York
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Sharon Hayes Can I first start with this little admission? Which is, that when I got the invitation to come and have a two-way interview with you, I was somehow suspicious in a way that I can’t quite…
Lawrence Weiner So was I. I didn’t know what the motive was of the people inviting us.
LW Though our praxis’s coexisted quite comfortably within the same context, they’re talking about two different things.
SH Also, I think there’s something interesting about the ways in which we might, or might not, intersect. Then, as I received the invitation I was thinking, What does that enforced intersection mean? We’re…
LW Called upon. Look at the jazz world. We’ve all grown up with these strange cassettes of two musicians who—you’ve read the stuff about how they didn’t even like each other—they would get up and do this wonderful work together for this one time only. So, anytime I find myself in these situations, I figure, OK, this might be the riff this one time. But, it’s onetime, it’s not a marriage.
SH Well, that is what started to change my mind, I started to think that you would probably be quite game, and why not?
LW I was game, but I still don’t understand it. So, I’m in the same problem you are and don’t get it.
SH OK, so let’s go into the public, and public interventions.
LW As a matter of fact, public interventions are just the stage that we chose. What responsibilities are in the morality of those interventions is what interests me. But, to recount: I did, you did, we did, doesn’t make any sense.
SH agree. I mean I’ve always found a challenge in the category of public art, because it’s a category without a medium. It doesn’t describe anything that could be a set of medium concerns that are shared. In a certain sense it’s descriptive of a place, a site, but even that site is not specific.
For myself, I actually came to the street—it’s more precise for me to say—I came to the street rather than to public space. I came to the street out of an interest in public speech and how to work with a certain thing I might call, public address. Public speech works very differently than theatrical speech—or speech that is just me to you of course because it has different presumptions. I’m curious, if you find—do you make a distinction between work inside, work outside? Or what, for you is the mobilizing interest, how do you find your way through this?
LW Yeah, inside, outside is another question. I don’t feel that the context of a work influences in fact its meaning. I have nothing against museums, except that they don’t open the windows so it’s always stuffy. It’s like being in a bad hotel room. But, other than that, I like commercial galleries because nobody has to pay, they can come in, they can laugh, they don’t feel the weight of the world on them, they don’t feel that they miss something, they might later realize it. (phone rings) Leave the phone rings in, that’s an inherent part of our existence.
SH I don’t have a landline anymore.
LW Getting back to the public/private, inside/outside, thought—I’m an urban person essentially. Occasionally, I get invited to do something in the landscape. Though it’s all the same to me, landscape is landscape. That’s the public part, it’s outside, you have to take into consideration that if you’re putting it out it should be in someway discernible for other people. They don’t have to accept it, they don’t have to pay attention, but it should be discernible.
Whether it’s a question of language, whether it’s a question of other things, you don’t have to do something special, it just passes in your day. It’s that whole silly thing of, you know: I don’t want to fuck up someone’s day on their way to work, I want to fuck up their whole life! It’s a quote that I’ve said before, but I really mean it. I want to give something, art-wise, so somebody understands the meaning and they also accept it. It necessitates the way they see the world or they live in the world. That’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to present something that’s showing another way to approach things. Approach. Do you see a difference in that?
SH Do I see a difference in what I’m doing?
SH I also have a desire—and I believe that art can, or should, or wants, to change people. Absolutely. I think a lot of the strategies of my work are related to a kind of form of distribution, the form of publication, or the form of distribution that happens when something circulates. I don’t necessarily put a burden on the encounter, or that one person might have with one piece at one moment, to change them. In that way much of the work that I do, on the street itself, makes a connection to another form of the work that might exist in a gallery. The work on the street is very small, so this idea of it as an intervention is something that I resist.
LW Small intervention is the same as a large intervention. A manhole cover is what they call small, in terms of public art. It’s still an intervention. I’ve seen disks and things put into the street by people, that I have noticed and in noticing them paid attention to what it was, and it was an intervention. One chalk mark on the street is exactly the same thing. People do see it. I want to change their logic pattern. I don’t want to deal with their behavioral pattern.
SH What’s the difference?
LW Behavioral patterns are they way people see themselves, the way they are. Logic patterns are the way people think of what is already an ipso facto, fact. If you’re changing behavioral patterns, if you’re telling somebody racism is bad, it’s this, it’s this, that’s trying to change a behavioral pattern. If I can prove by showing somebody that you gain enormous freedom by not being a racist, because that allows you then to be who you are. You can say, “I do not like Moroccan food,” then it doesn’t have a double meaning, it just means I like vanilla, I like chocolate, I like strawberry. If you can do that, then that behavioral pattern of not asking somebody to assume your role, not asking them to change their manner of dress, it changes their manner of what success is. And, in changing that, that logic, that changes the behavioral pattern. Or at least it dulls the aggression and indulgence.
SH I think for me, one point of difference is that in some ways I don’t have the clarity with which you can say that what I want to change in X. Isn’t something that mobilizes the way in which I want to work. That it’s more dispersed in a sense, which is maybe again back to the analogy to publishing is to say that if that person who has that encounter with project is a reader a viewer a listener, if they receive something.
LW A receiver.
SH A receiver. Then in some ways that is the goal of the work, to have them receive it. Whether it impacts them in their life, how far it impacts them, at what time it impacts them, what specific change it makes, I don’t think I can be responsible for.
LW Well, you can’t be responsible for it, but you could aspire towards it. There could be a sense of aspiration. I’m afraid I disagree, because the way you’re describing it almost sounds like one of those PR people in the industry saying, It doesn’t matter what they say as long as spell your name right. That’s the receiver situation. Even in a presentation the receiver has to interact. They’re interacting, in order to be able to participate; you can live a whole life very well without interacting with a work of art. When they choose to though, they have to make a decision how they want to receive it, they have to make a decision about whether they can afford the money, etc., etc., etc.
The trouble with public art is that it implies, that the public sphere, what we used to think would be the government of a country, before it became privatized, has invested in this. In fact it’s not the case. Most of the public art one sees around is self-promotion of artists, the (TK boteros?) in Venice, the boteros on fifth avenue, that’s not the public hiring somebody to do something, so the implication is not the explicit fact. People use public art as a means of validation; it must be an important person, you must be an important artist, because you are allowed to be on the street doing this.
SH I think it’s interesting that you bring up my person because very often I do newsletters,
LW That’s the point. You use your person as the stage, the platform…
SH And, it’s true that there is always a question of permissibility. I can recognize that in a given moment. When I’m standing out front of the UBS building headquarters in midtown Manhattan, that I am only able to last there, for a duration of 20 minutes because I have permission…
LW And only within parameters…
SH Only within parameters. But, one of the things that I find interesting as I’ve spent time on the street, as a body on the street, is to recognize some of those parameters, is to feel them. That’s what happens when you go out on the street, you recognize them, because you push some of them, or you’re corrected and told to be in this parameters, etc.
The other thing that I’ve noticed and that I’m interested in paying more and more attention to is in a sense the people who cohabitate, who coexist in that space with me which tend to be—the people I’ve noticed most commonly, are preachers, and so-called crazy people. There’s also something where the bodies function against some of those regulatory normative ways of occupying the street of an urban center are people who have a kind of proselytizing desire or who, so to speak, can’t help themselves from breaking norms. I find that really interesting. I find it interesting as an artist to stay in that space, even with those people, and if you allow me that specious claim: a triangle of artists, preachers, and the insane.
LW Why not? In fact, what has that got to do with the definition of art? Nothing. Your talking about how it appears in the society within the structure that we live in.
SH Except, I think, that has something to do with what I understand the potential of my action and the impact of my action that I am interested in, as an artist, in understanding those non-normative behaviors actually.
LW OK (TK, mad mulligan?) was involved in (TK) And, still acting within the structure of art and things like that.
SH Yes, for sure, acting within the structures of art, in that, his investigation is different than…
LW Oh, it’s totally different. But, it’s the same situation where it’s making an icon out of a crazy person. Crazy to me is not a particularly bad word or good word, there’s only been one success that I know of in New York and that’s like (TK Dockson?), that became a successful way to deal with the world. (TK Sun Ra?) Tried it, but it didn’t work, he had to go back to the word of mouth, that’s an interesting thing that’s the only person I know that became at least—I grew up in New York—there was the end of the world person who became a respected member of society doing exactly what it was that they did. Not adapting it, not being adapted, and not liking it.
SH But, in that way the verification, or the validation comes from being an accepted member of society. It isn’t what happens when someone is acting non-normative…
LW Yes, they do, in lower class, I only know this from my own background. There were always the crazy kids who ran around like this, they were the kids who kept stealing guns out of policeman’s holsters, it was the lunatics in the society. There are, even in very homophobic societies, an accepted number of people within each community, that are homosexual. That are gay, that are this, and they’re all accepted within that small community; they don’t accept the ones from other communities that have the same, what they call, aberration. That’s interesting to me because that’s what I said about the art with you. It’s not odd in New York City. Each neighborhood, has its lady who sunbathes on Hudson St., and she sits on the steps in the spring on 14th St., nobody knows who she is and she’s part of neighborhood. The worst boy in the hood will defend her. She is part of his life.
SH But, I’m not interested in that, the function of belonging. I’m not so interested as an artist, in the function of belonging, or the function of that kind of social validation, not actually as a peer person.
LW But, why? I never know, your platform is a platform for civil rights, for the fact that females have feelings, that males have feelings, people have feelings not just a role.
SH (Laughter) That’s not how I would describe it…
LW I know it isn’t, but I’m being a little bit, you know? Being me.
SH I know. Um…but, I think the fundamental, or the work isn’t about creating a platform for civil rights, the work—if I have been mobilized biographically by a moment it’s a moment of the AIDS crisis and where there was an urgent aim and a need and a want, and a set of politics and a set of art practices, that were interested in effecting that, a set of goals. It wasn’t it a kind of equal rights platform and it wasn’t about a civil rights platform, it was about that need, and the urgency of the need being addressed by the people and the government…
LW People who had access to do something about it.
SH So, for me, this is where the question of belonging comes from. The difference is to say that I’ve also been mobilized as an artist by a set political process that have used a lack of belonging, or difference, or a kin of otherness to effect change rather than a kind of assimilation. Let me be assimilated into the society, but of course I’m not interested in the kind of radical otherness.
LW Are you not?
SH I’m not interested in a kind of queer nation, or—and, it’s happened in many different kinds of political struggles to have a separatist nation—it’s not a separatist goal, it is to say that difference, and a recognition of difference, that that can be something that pushes change. The inability of belonging in a certain place, that can change, as you say, the logic patterns and what an ultimate social goal might be. What is belonging? On what terms is belonging constructed? What does it rely upon, and those things start to get to the structure that builds inclusions and exclusions.
LW This is strange, and I don’t think I agree with it. I don’t believe in assimilation. I don’t believe that that will accomplish anything, but organization, yes.
When you go into a pub in Britain, where there are art signs out front, and you ask the person pulling the beer, What’s that? What’s that shit? They’ll say, “Oh that’s art.” And, they’ll go back to what they’re doing. You’ll say, What do you mean that’s art? They’ll say, “Oh, you know, people put it up.” They’re not questioning that it’s art, they’re just not interested. The question is that you’ve already gotten to a point of making it possible, that you have to bang somebody on the head to get them to listen to it. To realize and take the trouble to find it as its own concept that could present it to them, they could put content in it, and that’s that whole thing. I don’t know about the other and the other and the other, I do know that the other part of it, as I’ve said, exists in every small community, and it hasn’t changed any behavioral patterns. Its existence has not changed anything except people have acclimated to living with that as part of their landscape. But they don’t want it from another place, but they will accept and defend it.
SH But, that kind of the rebellion, or the kind of accepted freak, whether it’s a queer freak…
LW I don’t know if it’s queer, you know like the kid who figures out how to stay in school, and they’re the faggot in the neighborhood, they’re the egg-head, they’re the this, they’re the that, but they’re there and if they’re lucky they make it to fifteen and they leave.
SH But, for me, that is an operation that is about assimilating the other, or this aberrant…
LW: No, accommodating it. Because they don’t have the means to change it.
LW They’re stuck with it. They’re stuck with their problems. They usually make hay out of it actually.
SH For me, what you’re talking about in terms of this dismissal, the, “oh that’s art!” For me that’s something that’s about working on the street, I always make a point at saying I’m not an artist.
LW I always make it a point to say I am, and that’s because I do this in the street and with people. I just did one in (TK Castleton?) where we built one with children. We built a statue, but it’s not really a statue, it’s a public piece, and it was designed for children and we had like five classes of children, all lined up. They were not told anything about anything—they knew me because I had been in the newspapers, and in Europe the children will look at their parents’ papers. Other than that, the minute we said they could go, they all ran. I was so proud, the little ones hid in the corners as protection, the older ones went on the top, some used it as a climbing thing; they all knew exactly what they wanted to do and they did it. That’s my idea of public intervention on the street. But, they knew it was art, and they didn’t know what they were going to do—they had made little art objects for me as a present, they knew what their art was, but they had never seen anything like this, or dealt with it. They did know it was art though, and I think it’s important that people know that.
I think that the role of the artist in society is essentially a necessary thing. The only way that you can have an attraction towards that kind of profession is if it’s known. I didn’t really know that it was a feasibility, until a certain point in my life that by chance. When the Museum of Modern Art sent out cards, and I found out it was also a better class of people that I went and slept with and realized when we were finished that we could talk about something, I’m serious. It’s that simple, but without that I wouldn’t have had to make a decision in my late adolescence, whether I would be someone involved with civil rights or whether I would try to change the culture as an artist. Being an artist, you have to be outside. But, the outside of an artist is not terribly radical, you live with people, you do this, it’s nothing in the end, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, just personal inconveniences.
SH I wonder a little bit if this distinction, or your choice to call it art, when I say I call myself an artist it has to do with my interaction with people on the street
LW What’s wrong with being an artist?
SH Because, if I’m standing out on the street with a protest sign that says, “Who approved the war in Vietnam” and someone comes up to me and says, “What are you doing?” If I say, I’m an artist…
LW I’m terribly sorry, protesting against the war in Vietnam, has nothing whatsoever to do with being an artist and not being an artist. Nothing whatsoever. Meaning, that you should never tell them that you’re an artist, until somebody asks. What I’m saying is if they ask, let them know that artists are concerned with the AIDS crises, if they ask which people usually do, “Why did you do the designs with for, you know, the radical lesbian coalition?” You say, Because they were fighting for this that and the other thing, or (TK Coyote?) does that mean you are, no, it means I am an artist and I chose to put my skill behind that cause.
It’s interesting, I see it as really important because, it’s that problem with (TK Marcuza?) It’s that problem with us. That was not a problem with John Paul Sartre. OK, I looked at that, I’ve been looking at that since it happened in the ’60s and trying to understand what my role as a human being would be, because art is made by human beings for other human beings, as far as classifications go, putting it within the context of art, allows people to realize that that section of society thinks that. They see the truck drivers against AIDS, and then they see this, and they begin to put it in. There is within the society no fragmentation about that the war in Vietnam, the war in Iraq, is unjustifiable.
SH Right, the work that I was speaking of is not a work—I’m not function as, the work the I’m speaking of, holding the sign that says, “Who approved the war in Vietnam?” was a work that was made in 2005, so it’s an anachronism…
LW No, it’s not. It’s a reference.
SH It’s a reference, it’s a citation.
LW We take it for granted that that’s implicit in the society, and all you have to do is make it explicit and everybody will agree with this, it ain’t necessarily so.
SH What do you mean?
LW You’re talking about the fact that most people you see on the street were not at a cognizant age during the war in Vietnam. You have to take into consideration, that most people, especially immigrants, have no idea what the war in Vietnam meant for the United States. They just saw it as another war somewhere. There are wars everyday. That seems to be what straight people do in their lives. They make wars. That’s their profession. That’s the only reason for the existence of basic middle class society, is to produce the means to make wars. I don’t see any other reason in it, but art does offer another reason. Art offers a dignity in relation of human beings to objects. That doesn’t have a metaphor, and everybody comes, and they have problems, and they take their own metaphor and they put it in it, I like that.
SH You like the putting in of the metaphor?
LW Yeah. I like that they figure out a way that they can use it, sexist, racist, fascist things, it’s not that hard. There are very few artists who are sexist, racist, fascist, it turns out there are even very few people that are.
SH That, I might disagree with.
LW We’ll leave out certain nationalities.
SH I think that in some ways anytime there’s a democratic president, the wellspring of racist factions of our own country really comes to—maybe let’s talk a little bit about what I was saying at the beginning. My move to the street came from a question of speech. To say, for instance in a piece where I speak in front of the UBS building, I’m standing and I speak a love address to an unnamed you. If I were to do that inside, any space, a museum space, a gallery space, almost any space inside, except perhaps a space of commerce. If I’m speaking that text there it becomes theatre. When I’m out on the street, it’s a wholly different material, that in fact what I am doing, literally is speaking to a group of passing individuals on the street and addressing them. So, I’m curious in a sense if this question of address, the positions of the speaker and a listener, or any of these aspects of speech are relevant to you, and the text works that you’re doing?
LW Me? No, they don’t work the same way, remember? I’m sorry to sort of like parse this, but the minute you have a microphone, it’s street theatre. The person goes out with marionette with a microphone and a thing, the person who sings on the street, that’s street theatre. It has a genre, it’s thought of as theatre by people.
SH I don’t think so. I totally disagree. I totally disagree. I think some people will think of it as street theatre but some people—
LW —theatre doesn’t mean that it’s not about vote for, it’s not about be against, it’s not about…. It’s about everything, but they see it in terms of a genre.
SH I don’t agree.
LW You don’t agree? Okay.
SH No because I don’t think that the public even in midtown Manhattan, certainly the public that I’ve encountered in 2007, I don’t think very many of them had any tangible access to a genre that I could call street theatre. I think they have much more tangible access to genres of a political speech, or genres of a political whether its local, national, what have you, a kind of political theatre, but I do not classify that in the context of the genre of street theatre.
LW I see it as the genre, and I see when I do put something put that’s available on the street I think of it in terms of graffiti with meaning. And you know the two kinds of graffiti, mi jose and 42nd street, which is existential [TK], or the sky is blue, which is a nice thing…. You’re legitimately allowed to say that in public space, or my children are hungry, which you’re legitimately allowed to say in public space, but mi jose, I exist, you don’t really have the right.
SH But do you think, then, of the manhole piece, are you saying it references graffiti, it’s in relation to graffiti, or it is graffiti?
LW It is in fact, it is a form of graffiti. When you look down and you see made in India when you look down and you see made in China, you see all the manhole covers, people read them. And then they read something that talks about something else within that context, and it’s that basic fact that a point here and point anywhere is in line itself, they’re in line with each other.
SH But this is where I did what to ask you, what becomes interesting to me about that piece in particular is the presence and absence, I would say of an author because graffiti for me always—
LW —yes, but no, I signed it, I signed it, it says LW—
SH —that’s true, that’s true—
LW —that was an argument I had with a colleague of mine in the beginning of ’70s or late middle ’60s, where he was putting things up in the street without having a reference point. And I always cited the French law—and I had done the same thing, I put things up—that they required that the printer but their name on every single poster so that they could go back and find out who said it. For repressive reasons or for other reasons. But those repressive reasons led me to believe that we have a responsibility to take responsibility to stand up for what we’re saying. You just put some reference, they may have to look it up, who LW is, but it’s possible to find out.
SH But does LW as a reference, does that function as the printer author, or does that function the author of the utterance?
LW The person, the Harry Truman the buck stops here, whoever it is you got them, they are responsible, somebody is responsible.
SH Because with graffiti, it seems to me that with graffiti, our projection about who the author is functions very differently because we know it to be anonymous on one hand, and/or something that we can build contextually I can build a relationship—
LW —you can tell who did things if you’re into graffiti. You can tell who scrawled something with chalk, everybody has their tag. And you begin to read those tags if you’re interested enough you can go through any train yard, you can go through anything—you can say that is Sally, that is Bobby, that is Betty—maybe you’re wrong on one or two, but your wrong when you go to the museum sometimes. That’s so-and-so, that’s so-and-so, these are signature things. Style is signature.
SH I was thinking also of some of what you were talking about with graffiti, which is not acting as an artist within a subcultural genre but just scrawling on the street, scrawling on the street out of protest, scrawling on the street out of anger—
LW —yeah but how do you choose to scrawl, is using the mechanics of art. And if you happen to earn your place in the society, pay your daily bread by being an artist, I’m just saying that off you can’t leave that out, it might be playing into the hands of people who say, Well, why don’t you just do it that way, get your degree, and then you can do what you want? I’m sorry if I see it in such down-to-earth terms but that’s how I see it. It’s like, Oh you’re a very pretty person, the grandma thing, but lets get that hair out of your face, let’s do this, let’s do that. You acquiesce? No. I think that people don’t have to acquiesce and I think that if artists continue to acquiesce because of their fragility in the market and such, they’re not setting a good example. Because they’re the only people who chose their profession left in the world practically. And they’re the only people who, if we can keep the Academy from jumping in, do not require a certification, a certificate, in order to function. You place it in the world, it sort of takes place in the world. Whether it takes it in some commercial structure or takes it in an underworld structure or an underground structure, doesn’t make terribly much difference. A functioning part of the society is using it, that’s all. I see a lot of art, not yours and mine, but other people’s conversations, ours meaning our class, get lost in this other thing of trying to say well I’m not really an artist, I’m not attached, because they’re looking at one aspect of it that is really rather ugly, or they’re looking at another aspect that is really rather ugly, but there are aspects that are really rather positive. So if you take on doctors, it’s the same thing, that most doctors can save a life and some doctors can just call their staff over—
SH —(laughter) right—
LW —I mean, I don’t get it, but you don’t disparage medicine as we know it. And we disparage ourselves when we feel we’re not macho enough within the society, we’re not there, we’re not something, and every artist seems to have that problem within western society. It’s your work that we’re talking about, where this lack of sense of value, lack of sense of dignity come from.
SH But I don’t have a lack of sense of value—
LW —no, no, you don’t, it’s this idea of not tell them it’s art, don’t make it art, keep it away from the art world. No, just do the fucking thing, whatever it is. If someone turns around and says, you know, The sky is blue, and they’re all these people on the street saying the sky is tan, you look up and the sky is blue, you have done a big public service by screaming in the street, doing your thing.
SH It’s not a disavowal, there’s no disavowal, I’m not interested in any kind of disavowal of either my identity of an artist—
LW —then in this interview there will be a lack of disavowal, okay, we’re lacking disavowal, we found our subject. It’s about multiple realities; we think of everything in Freudian terms. You have this situation that builds up where you have this sort of reflexive parallel reality. That always means that something is the real and something is not real wherever you’re standing. Whatever happened to all simultaneously, like the old how many angels can dance on a pinhead. In fact it doesn’t matter, what does matter is what they’re dancing.
SH I don’t know if I can draw this out of what you’re saying, but let me try.
SH Which is also to say that I have been…. Because the conditions of speech are something I think a lot about, I’ve always been fascinated by communication. Actually on the level of what comes through in terms of communication is very often something I could call miscommunication or misinterpretation or a kind of missed encounter that for me is extremely productive. That’s my investment in psychoanalysis actually. My investment in psychoanalysis is that I may be talking to you and you may be hearing something that comes from a whole other set of drives, interests, wants, conditions, etc. And those I find really generative, and that also might be something where—and it’s not again something where I disavow the direct address at all, but I do feel like mostly I work in the space of indirect address. Which is that I may look like I am doing direct address, but in fact what is happening is indirect address.
LW Yeah, this is how it goes.
SH That for me, also I think why I can’t say, The work will change a viewer in this way or the work will do this. I’m invested in the encounter of the work and it’s receiver. And it’s not a light thing, I’m not at all as you were saying speaking of a kind of public relations subterfuge or surface or in a kind of relative openness. It’s not about relativity, it is about the unpredictability between me and a receiver or between the work and a receiver. And that in fact that’s also I think for me where the space of working is also the space of doing is also the space of learning what it is I am doing which is probably also why I very often use performance reviews. My own persona—
LW —such a nice word, persona, it really is.
BS Sharon, I’m curious about your choices of various texts. It’s almost to me like a hermeneutical study of texts, when you go from Patty Hearst’s open, you know, open letters to her parents that were videotaped and played on television and reported on the newsletters, to love letters really to I’m assuming your lover or someone who could be your lover, to political speeches. How do you use these texts, what kind of transformation takes place for instance for you, the way you set these things up.
SH What this connects to is something I wanted to ask you which has to do with a kind of foundational encounter I had with feminism. Late to the proper movement, in a sense, because I was born in 1970, so Second Wave Feminism and the Feminist Movement had a kind of cohesing at that moment that I did not live through, but one of the foundational encounters for me was what is very simply called the personal [TK] or a relationship, a disturbance of these divisions of what we would call the private sphere and what we would call the public sphere. For me, I have been predominantly interested, as a reader, as a thinker, as a receiver myself, in these speech moments or texts where these two things are impossible to separate, interlocking and impossible to separate. For me what was fascinating about the letters, the audiotapes, they were audiotapes that Patty Hearst and the SLA sent to the radio station, which is essentially sending it to her parents vis-à-vis the public, what is interesting for me about that is all the questions that were coming up…what those texts demonstrate for me is some kind of coming to a political subjectivity. It’s a coming to a very specific form of political subjectivity because she was captive.
LW Being captivated.
SH Captivated, perhaps. Captive and captivated (laughter). In that place, it’s very hard to say, Was she really mimicking somebody else’s words, the SLA’s words? Was she coming to these words for the first time in her bourgeois upbringing?
LW I think it was rather haute-bourgeois.
SH (laughter) Yeah. I think actually all of the texts that I gravitate towards in some ways my interest has been to get to this line, this seam of the public and the private. Because political speech itself, a speech a president gives to his, in this country his citizens, is always intended to address us in our person, in our individual personhood. That’s how a political speech works, to mobilize us as individuals so we feel spoken to.
LW To cry in the movie theater.
SH (laughter) To cry in the movie theater.
LW Yeah, I mean, it’s Frank Capra, we see it all the time. I don’t know, I have this really stupid thought that we don’t each other, you know we don’t know ourselves, and when we’re in situations that we don’t know what to do, basically I’m a New Yorker, so I’d look to Hollywood films I saw as a child. There’s your role. If [TK] could do that then I could do that, if she could do that he could do that this one could do that I could do it that way and you know basically how to do it. It leads to a lot of misunderstandings but it gives you a means to get through. And I always think that my making art and placing it in the world gives somebody a means to get through, they can understand the relationship to a glass. Once they understand that, then they can worry about content of it, what’s in the glass, and what it has to do with them. So it leaves it open, because I think this thing about misunderstanding is still the rational thing. The games that children play where you tell the story and then the other tells the same story and the same story and the same story and the same story and it comes out the other end. That’s interesting but I don’t know if that means anything, that’s the problem. And I think the content that you’re trying to base, you’re using art—sorry I don’t mean this to be offensive—but you’re using art as a means of a platform for things you deeply believe, and if you could say them you would be able to understand them better and move onto the next phase of what should be done and things. I think that’s one of the functions of art. And if you make it yourself and then you use it as a platform, more power to you. So in fact the message is not the content, the content is this interaction within the society.
LW So therefore you’re not in any different state or any different thing that I am.
SH Probably, (laughter) probably not, probably not.
LW It just doesn’t look the same.
BS Except that you read texts out loud.
LW I even record them in songs, I read texts out loud, I’ll do anything. I’ll make a record, I’ll make a tape. I made a tape for the Whitney. The only thing I won’t do in a public show is put up an explanation because I still think that rationalizations and explanations determine how people are going to see it. I much rather they try to figure it out themselves. And I sort of still have this leftover, you know, dingleberry of really believing that the public is not stupid.
SH I agree.
LW Very often their rejection of your form, their rejection of your content, is because they’re rejecting it. There’s no reason that they should have to accept it because an artist is not supposed to have authority. You’re supposed to scramble these marbles and people figure out how to walk on them. So I don’t know, I think this speech thing, this trying to determine whether the oil paint or acrylic is going to prove one thing or another, is the same as whether its spoken, whether it’s chanted, whether it’s blared, whether it’s written in sky-writing or painted on the wall, or somebody with a microphone, it’s all the same. I hope.
SH I think that’s true. I mean I do think that there is, that that fundamental difference between the text and the speech, it being text or it being speech, is a question of form—
LW —it’s form, it’s style.
SH One area that, I think the—were you…I got distracted.
BS I was just saying that you, as a matter of form, read your texts out loud. And in some instances what’s very interesting to me about your reading them out loud is that you’re having the audience correct you from a script that they’re holding of the text that you’re reading, or I’m sorry the text that you’ve memorized. It’s very curious to me in your interpretation of texts how the role of memory comes into the act.
SH Well I do think that we have a different relationship to history and we use history very differently in our works. Maybe because of this relationship I have to certain deep, deep historical moments in our country, in the U.S., being born in 1970 made some kind of inexplicable mark on me that I think I have spent much of my life trying to understand. So that of course from a place of a certain kind of looking back, and so I am invested in the present moment but in the present moment as some kind of collapse of many different moments. And that collapse is happening all around us.
LW And it continues, the world does turn.
LW That’s been my problem as well. I don’t know, your time, and your time is exactly the same as my time. My daughter was born in ’69, she has the same political problems, but we’ve experienced that time the same. So there is no change in all of that experiential, what is is and what isn’t is no longer.
SH No I think in that sense I’ve heard you speak a little about generation before—
LW —yeah I don’t get it.
SH For me what is important about generation—I’m not interested in a kind of public relations or mass culture assignation of generation this, generation that. That I don’t buy at all. I do feel that I have come to an understanding more and more as I get older that I was pressed and formed in certain moments and in relation to certain moments differently than others. So there was a moment when I came to New York in 1991 when I was 21 pressed itself upon me in a way that I have to reconcile even as I move farther away from that. So it’s not about nostalgia it’s not about a loss for anything, it’s about recognizing the potency of a certain kind of cultural interruption.
LW And it’s effect on you. You have to put into account how you were formed and what you were formed from. But I don’t know if that’s anybody’s business when you make art.
SH No, it’s my business. It’s my business. And it affects the work I make, it affects where I go, what I’m interested in, it affects deeply how I see my role as an artist.
SH Yeah. That kind of moment of formation, for sure.
SH Because, to maybe get in a long way to what Betsy is trying to suggest, I have always been interested in the relationship between a speaker and a listener, an artist and those who see the work. Not from a biographical—
LW —I say use it.
SH I buy that, I will buy use for sure. In that way, that comes from a personal experience of using many many many other artworks. Having this experience—
LW Having to use them to figure out something. Whatever, which is interesting, that it’s whatever.
SH So when I say that that’s my business, it maybe goes back to your assertion that we do not know ourselves and in some ways we are trying to understand ourselves. I am always trying to understand myself in relation to the collectivities that I am implicated in, that I sometimes affiliate myself with, and sometimes am affiliated with by the happenstance of my birth and my place of birth and my therefore nationality. And that ends up having a lot to do with, I think that ends up having a lot to do with art in the sense that art conveys, that art is a conveyance of some sort.
LW It’s a platform. That structure itself functions as a platform. Then you can be judged on your style choices, you can be judged on this, not judged on your value, judged on the context that it is going to be used in or how it is first approached. I mean I don’t really as a general rule care if I have a piece that really works whether it is lipstick on a wall or chalk or whether it’s beautifully installed. It is just basically emotional for me in the moment, if there are means for me put it in in a certain way I will do it and if there is no need I wont. You too, or not.
LW That’s the problem. Yeah, I think not. There is a choice.
SH There is a choice.
SH There’s absolutely a choice. I think that what that comes down, or why I say that, is because the moment of its conveyance is a moment of its making, that the idea does not exist prior—
LW —Yeah, it exists because an object at that moment—
SH Which I think is a bit different, that’s quite a bit different than most of your work.
LW My work is always in the past tense, it’s always something that somebody made. It’s never telling anybody anything or what to do, and they don’t have to do anything in order to know what it is. Okay, but that’s my own thing, I fail sometimes, I’ll screw up, but that’s my intention.
SH But that also means that the piece, and I’ve heard you talk about much of your work as an object—
LW It is an object, it enters the society, somebody finds some use for it, and there it is, it is an object.
SH And I think I would speak of my work predominantly even the work that has objectness, as an encounter.
LW As an encounter.
SH So in that way—
LW —But is not that encounter between two human beings or ten human beings objectified?
SH It has material—
LW It is an object.
SH But not in the sense, not in the sense…the difference is that, my feeling is that your object, a piece has an objectness and a specificity to it that is, you can grasp prior to its conveyance. So that you know it is and then it may be conveyed in many different ways.
LW Oh okay, I know what it is, yes that’s true, and you are discovering what it is.
SH I don’t always know what it is, I’m very often working in the space of its conveyance that I’m present to that space.
LW I don’t know what it looks like, I make specific objects that don’t have a specific form, and many of the materials that are presented to be combined are catalystic so I don’t know what it is going look like, but I do know what it is and I do know what I suspect it will look like. Suspect, I don’t know how copper is going to oxidize.
SH And I suppose in a certain way then, I don’t know what will have been up if we bring in this word and I’m only bringing it in because I’ve heard you speak about it—
SH —is sociology. Which is to say, there is a borrowing of a set of directions, a set of strategies, a set of processes that I have engaged in my work that I borrow them from social science, I have to borrow them from social science.
LW But are you talking about method, or the results of social scientists as material?
SH No, I never use the results.
LW Then we don’t have a real problem about sociology, because my problem with sociology is it’s fine, but it’s not a material for making art.
SH Nor is it, one could say, a material for the drawing conclusions about society (laughter).
LW There’s enough material temporally to draw conclusions to go ahead, to keep moving, because there is a problem there. You basically would like to know if it’s 45% of the population who hates [TK] or if it’s 35% of the population…if you find yourself on a pitch and they’re all running at you if really doesn’t make much of a difference if its 45 or 35, but psychologically it gives you a little bit feeling that there is a chance that this is going to lay itself out, that it will be there and somebody is going to use it, and it’s never going to end up something doing something you don’t want them to do.
SH So tell me about this moment, in some public forum, when you were speaking to this issue of public, and saying we as artists are a public and that that was what feminism taught. I’m curious, because I haven’t often heard you asked about whether you thought you were informed by feminism as an artist, or whether you feel like your work was informed by feminism.
LW I don’t know, I don’t like the word.
LW No but it’s a word, I don’t like [TK], it’s the same thing, I don’t like conceptual, I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the word. I was informed by seeing that when things were able to be put into the public, was by an informed group of people who didn’t apologize and they were not protesting. They were stating an obvious, and when it could form itself into being an obvious fact, that all of the preconceptions were obviously not what they should be, it worked. And that’s informed me in terms of what I consider my role, which is again about building this dignity. If you can respect a stone, you can respect another human being, you have to know why. And that was about it, but as far as we have societies built on an xx and an xy structure, something I’ve been fighting most of my life because I don’t get it. I don’t think there is…that thing I did for the exquisite corpse project, that x and y thing, I would really prefer to have that for the rest of the world. But it ain’t going to happen, that’s the problem, so one has to deal with what the influences are. As far as the civil rights action, I think that a way a country propounding itself to be the United States has so many, and I’ll use the word advisedly, you know like [TK] concerning things, I don’t quite get. Women are on the same level playing field as everyone else, but there is no level playing field. That’s my problem, that’s been my anger about…. I see it as a civil rights thing, I see it as we’ve lowered the dignity of our culture by even entertaining those conversations.
SH By entertaining?
LW The conversation about, you know, is a cow black is a cow white? Is a woman this, is a man that, is a woman this, is a man that? We dirty our society by even thinking that, we’re supposed to just look at what they put on the table and deal with it.
SH But the problem is of course, we never did.
LW Nobody has ever done it, but I don’t quote understand why if I’m thinking that way there must be another thousand people in this area thinking that way. Why it’s never become this thing, because there’s too much invested in that whole culture, and I try to break it in the work.
SH In what culture?
LW In our culture, in western culture. I don’t know Asian cultures well enough, I know them, but I don’t know them well enough to say. But in western culture. I don’t know Muslim cultures well enough, I can only see its manifestation. But that’s the same as I don’t know born-again Christianity well, but I know the text and I’ve read the books and I can see its manifestation. That’s nice, to able to…but if you think that you must take it for granted that somebody else thinks that. You can’t be alone. Isn’t that that song, you’ll never walk alone, you don’t.
LW It’s the way life is. So I always think of that not as utopian but as the basic skin of what goes over whatever the structure is. In the end, people could, could accept this other thing. But [TK], it was more watching, as I’ve learned from Marxism sometimes it’s failure when it’s put into play. The mechanics didn’t work.
SH You’re talking about the policy goal?
LW The mechanics. The concept of a socialist economy really is fabulous—dignity and value by virtue of what it really costs. But the mechanics don’t seem to have been toned out and that’s the problem that we’re having of trying to explain to one generation to another generation, stop thinking in terms of boys and girls. Start thinking in terms of what’s on the table.
SH I also think that’s a place where our differential experiences of the same time—
LW —yes and no.
SH —have an impact. Because I don’t see it as a failure. I see that the Equal Rights Amendment failed.
LW Yes, that’s a very long time ago.
SH But I don’t see that the feminist movement failed. I think that there were a whole host of unfulfilled promises that we, or many people were invested in. I think that that does have to do with how and when I formed political subjectivity because I had an experience of being impacted by that moment that was not mine, it’s also maybe something I can talk about—
LW —but it is yours.
SH It is mine, it is mine. I don’t want, you and I agree on that—
LW —no, no, I’m sorry, you have a persona, you have a persona, it impacted you.
SH But it impacted me…it’s similar to, let’s say, the photograph of a political event—
LW —or the photograph of a gay right’s club or something—
LW —but it did impact you.
SH Absolutely, absolutely.
LW And you didn’t have to empathize, you could stand there and see that it was reality.
SH It was physical and emotional and material.
LW You didn’t have to empathize, you didn’t have to be Rosa Parks. And I think that’s important.
SH But I think those two things do constitute something materially different, that you maybe had an experience of both moments, and that I had…I mean it’s too easy to call it both moments—
LW —yeah, I don’t know what the both moments would be.
SH I guess that’s to say the event and the memory I event, or is I just parse it out and simplify, the operation of one event versus then document of that event. And I absolutely believe that that photograph can have material impact, and eventness.
LW It had changed your life, for whatever reason it changed your life.
SH But I don’t have, but I think there is something where to see the photograph and have an experience of it changing my life changes how I think of success and failure. Because I don’t have, if I’m being impacted by that event, that memory, that historical memory, I can’t see it as a failure. Because I’m being moved and impacted and changed and my logic system is changing. When I was 19 and I had the event of feminism, kind of I encountered the event of feminism, I was changed and everything about my logic system was changed.
LW Yes of course.
SH And so I can’t see that as a failure, I can’t experience it as failure.
LW Oh I see. What my problem is, and maybe I can be more explicit, and it has to do with my work as well, I don’t see entitlement as being translated as or having anything to do with empowerment. And that’s that differentiation that I make, where entitlement, that’s what I’m interested in as a political person. Empowerment is another story, empowerment does imply a meritocracy, empowerment does imply responsibility, empowerment does explicitly demand noblesse oblige. That’s where I see in the works that I make…they’re dealing first with the essence of entitlement, it is entitlement, that’s why I was saying the responsibility of taking on being an artist and saying you are is this entitlement, but empowerment is something else. Empowerment then might be a [TK], and it might be a contest and it might be something else for the greater good. I don’t quite know where the lines are drawn and I’ve tried to be careful about that but I had an illusion when I was 21 of the gunfighter. You know it had nothing to do with being good or bad either you were fast or you were slow and that was it. And the nice things about going to extremes, and I like [TK] and things like that, is you make a mistake, there’s no anecdote, you’re dead.
SH (laughter) that’s the nice thing?
LW I find it wonderful that there is no anecdote. (laughter) I’m serious here, you fuck up as an artist, you blew it, there is no anecdote. You don’t have to talk about the fact that it was because you had to take your kid to school or you had pick them up. Everybody does. That’s what I meant about artists: you pay taxes and you take your kid to the dentist and that’s really about all anyone can really ask of you.
SH What would be fucking up as an artist?
LW Oh doing something that basically set the tone to deprive people of the means of being able to deal with things without them having to in fact aspire towards your persona, aspire towards your value structure, aspire towards that…I like making work that they don’t have to know anything about my value structure, it’s explicit. You’re in a vulnerable situation that they basically have to ascertain your value structure in order to deal with you.
In the Open: Art and Architecture in Public Spaces is sponsored by Cary Brown-Epstein + Steven Epstein and with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency.