Allan Sekula by Edward Dimendberg

BOMB 92 Summer 2005
092 Summer 2005 1024X1024

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Allan Sekula, Prayer for the Americans 3 (Disney Stockholders), 1997/2005, 16 medium format slides, 3 minutes. All Sekula images courtesy of the artist, Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica, and the Gallery at Redcat, Los Angeles.

Allan Sekula is one of the most thoughtful historians, critics, and practitioners of photography working today. For more than three decades his images and writings have shifted the terms on which the medium is understood and has influenced a generation of artists and scholars. Whether articulating a semiotics of the photograph in his classic study Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photoworks 1973–1983 (1984) or investigating maritime space in the books and exhibitions comprising Fish Story (2002), Sekula is always in motion. His extensive travels to many of the world’s seaports are matched only by his enlightening journeys across history, politics, and aesthetics that through their consummate intelligence transform and connect domains usually considered separate. Thus it is only fitting that in recent years Sekula has begun to make moving images alongside his still photographs, producing an investigation of the Tokyo fish market Tsukiji (2001) and The Lottery of the Sea, a densely woven work-in-progress on globalization and its political and ecological discontents. The courage and outspokenness of his interventions lend them an integrity that recalls the work of Hans Haacke and Krzysztof Wodiczko. Sekula’s generosity toward students and younger artists has done much to mitigate the crasser tendencies of the Los Angeles art world, just as his presence at local events inevitably instills debate and leaves me feeling less isolated and bereft of community; the eternal Los Angeles condition. We spoke in April and May shortly after the opening of Facing the Music, an exhibition he organized in the Redcat Gallery, housed inside Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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Allan Sekula, Self-Portrait (Lendo, 12/22/02), 2002–03, cibachrome, 15 x 21 inches. From Black Tide/Marea Negra, 2002–03.

Edward Dimendberg Let’s begin with how you came to curate Facing the Music.

Allan Sekula The invitation came through Cal Arts and the Getty Trust. Their initial idea was to document the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall. As it turns out, the Getty has sponsored several projects documenting Gehry’s development as an architect. Steven Lavine, President of Cal Arts, chose me as the principal investigator, or likely suspect, as the case may be. In early December 1998 Steven asked if I wanted to make a proposal. It was clear to me that it would be most interesting to assemble a team of artists with diverse sensibilities to follow the Hall’s three year period of construction. So I quickly came up with four collaborators: filmmaker Billy Woodberry and photographers Karin Apollonia Müller, Anthony Hernandez, and James Baker.

ED What was it about these artists’ work that excited you and seemed relevant to the project?

AS Baker made an impressive documentary project in the late ’90s that looked at the northern edges of Los Angeles County where suburban housing tracts and prisons are replacing orange groves and chaparral. A former carpenter himself, he traced the new mass production logic of suburban tract housing, picturing white subcontractors emerging out of a shrinking older generation of unionized carpenters, often hiring young Mexican immigrant framers and drywallers without papers or union cards, sometimes without housing themselves. These new relations of production are endemic in the residential housing sector. The complicated web of detail work serves to exculpate the big housing companies which are increasingly integrated with mortgage lending and insurance services.

Woodberry’s film Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) is a poignant neo-realist drama of an African-American family seized by the deindustrialization of South Central Los Angeles. The film combined sometimes ferocious psychological intimacy with an ironic sense of the vast physical space of the city.

In the ’70s, Anthony Hernandez had been photographing on Broadway, the main shopping district for working class Latinos and in Beverly Hills, along Rodeo Drive, marketplace to the rich. There was an intuitive and organic sense of social contradiction and class relations in his approach to Los Angeles as well.

Müller was intriguing for what at first consideration might seem like wholly other reasons, her fascination with the famous “light” and atmosphere of the city. We joked that this was a local variation on her native German light, overcast but brighter, and yellower thanks to the perpetual filter of smog. She discovered a way of looking down from high vantage points on the horizontal streetscape.

Our shared ground was obsessive curiosity about Los Angeles. But the feeling and tone of our approaches varied considerably.

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James Baker, Untitled, 2005, Digital Installation, 6 minutes. Courtesy of the Gallery at Redcat.

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Anthony Hernandez, Disney #2, 2002–03, C-Print, 48 x 92 inches (diptych). Courtesy of the Gallery at Redcat.

ED So how did you define your site of investigation?

AS Disney Hall was a given but we were already committed to a contextual approach. We took the literal site, the corner of First Street and Grand Avenue, as emblematic of the ideological challenges faced by the city’s boosters and planners who were trying to promote a vision of the city’s newfound cultural sophistication. Grand Street was to be the new axis of cultural and spiritual life, bracketed by Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art to the South, and Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady Queen of the Angels to the North. Modernism and anti-modernism alike in modernist guise. First Street is more complicated, inhabited by older courthouses and by City Hall, police headquarters as well as those of the Los Angeles Times. This was the axis of administrative, juridical, and corporate media power.

Until the ’60s, the Times was virtually the crypto-government of the city, making and breaking politicians and policies. But the civic architecture of the epochs of the New Deal and postwar California now seems shabby and neglected, even as the courts process record numbers of cases. Most telling for me was the repositioning of a melancholy bust of Abraham Lincoln that used to confront jurors as they crossed the street. Now Abe is hidden in a shady nook between two ficus trees. Jurors who are expected by the state’s prosecutors to continue to send the descendants of slaves to prison in record numbers are best spared the baleful gaze of the Great Emancipator.

This retreat from civic memory is of course commensurate with our title Facing the Music, which we kept under wraps for several years and which was intended to get at this confused identity. In fact, the subterranean garage for Disney Hall provided parking for jurors even before the construction of the Hall itself and continues to do so to this day. So you might say that the contradiction between the loudly trumpeted sphere of culture and the lurking presence of society with all its troubling and embarrassing problems was at the foundation of our project. Beyond that, each of us defined his or her own path.

ED I’m struck by what I found to be the very non-territorial organization of the exhibition. One never has the sense of the works competing with each other.

AS I’d hoped for that. I learned that curating newly commissioned work involves no small element of intuition, going forward on a mere hunch that something worthwhile will result and that some ultimate complementarity will be achieved. It is fashionable for artists to curate nowadays but one lesson is that curating is a very different practice from art making in certain subtle ways. In the end I myself had to back off as an artist and adjust my own project to the others.

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Karin Apollonia Mueller, images from Tree Series, 2003–05, C-Prints. Top: Uprooting the Snowball Tree, 2003, 40 x 40 inches. Bottom: Daisy’s Dead Snowball Tree, 2003, 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the Gallery at Redcat.

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Karin Apollonia Mueller, images from Tree Series, 2003–05, C-Prints. Top: Uprooting the Snowball Tree, 2003, 40 x 40 inches. Bottom: Daisy’s Dead Snowball Tree, 2003, 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the Gallery at Redcat.

ED How important was an element of investigative research, detective work, into the location of Disney Hall within larger economic and cultural systems? For example, where did Baker’s concerns lead him?

AS He surprised me by getting bored with the construction project, which he thought was receiving too much attention already, and headed downhill toward the desiccated concrete ditch of the Los Angeles River, where he discovered strange interactions between television and film crews shooting crime dramas and the resident population of the homeless. Interweaving these riverbottom encounters with views of the new cultural Parthenon on the hill, he introduces uncanny correspondences. A homeless man dozes beneath the folds of a scavenged metallic space blanket that easily stands in for Gehry’s building. Baker chooses an entirely new mode of presentation using high-resolution images displayed directly from a hard drive, implicitly refuting the assumption that digitization is the repudiation of all realism.

ED A different approach to dislocation is suggested by Müller’s photographs of the tree being moved. It seems to become an allegory for the impossibility of successfully transplanting elements to the center of the city, and a gloomy one at that, for the tree doesn’t survive.

AS Gehry’s highly reflective metal building had to be softened by tree planting. The landscape scheme was symphonic, with trees chosen for the timing and hue of their flower. Müller discovered that this entailed buying mature trees at bargain rates from private homeowners. An elderly woman in Culver City habitually sat in front of her modest clapboard bungalow and opened her mail under the shade of her tree. Now her shade has been sacrificed for the civic good. A strange instance of utilitarian aesthetics in the land of private interests. The whole sequence exhibits a fairy-tale sadness yet evokes a Southern California populated by ordinary folks and visionary schemers familiar to readers of Louis Adamic and Upton Sinclair.

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Billy Woodberry, The Architect, The Ants and The Bees, 2005, digital video transferred to DVD with color and sound, 120 minutes. Director/camera: Billy Woodberry; Editor: Kurt Daugherty. Courtesy of the Gallery at Redcat.

ED What’s more important, a tree in Culver City or a tree in front of the Disney Concert Hall? It really does feel like people cutting out vital organs for transplants and selling them to others. These ideas about memory and duration also come across powerfully in Billy Woodberry’s film, The architect, the ants, and the bees, for it changes the way one views a construction site thanks to the diligence with which it follows the workers at the Disney Concert Hall over a period of time.

AS I’m delighted that this film could actually be installed in the Hall, because it materializes the memory of the building’s construction in a way that is simultaneously methodical and lyrical. It proceeds in a disarmingly linear way, following the day-to-day rhythms of the project but also achieving the abstract musical effect of silent films like Joris Ivens’s The Bridge (1928) or Rain (1929). But its sound track is pretty much direct sound, the discordant music of the workers and machines that eventually make official music possible. I’m reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s instructions to the projectionist of British Sounds (1969): Turn up the volume because most people in a film audience don’t know what it’s like to be in a factory. Woodberry achieves this effect more subtly and with far less aggression.

His film evokes regret for the self-obscuring project of Gehry’s design. Several artist friends of ours observed that the Disney Concert Hall was most interesting as a steel skeleton crazier than anything Richard Serra could have made. You can see that Woodberry himself developed a real sympathy for the building. This turns on an empathy with the people who built it. The workers are the missing term in his title borrowed from Marx’s rumination on the difference between the human architect who conceives his project in the imagination and ants and bees that labor by instincts alone.

ED By contrast, Hernandez does not include people in his photographs, yet the feeling of human activity is nonetheless very strong.

AS With all this stillness, Hernandez is playing with a triple sense of human action mapped out along the axis of First Street. To the East, on the other side of the Los Angeles River he revisits the housing project where he grew up as it undergoes demolition. Disney Hall “under construction” occupies the center of his path. And the Belmont high school complex, an ambitious and scandal-ridden civic project abandoned after it was belatedly revealed to sit atop a gaseous pool of methane and hydrogen sulfide, marks the westward limit of his journey. Overall his photographs are meditations on the life and death of the built environment. Even his sledgehammer resting on its head encapsulates this vision, a tool useful both for driving wedges and for demolition, briefly abandoned by its user.

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Allan Sekula, Gala, 2005, digital video transferred to DVD, 26 minutes. Director/camera: Allan Sekula; Editor: Elizabeth Hesik.

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Allan Sekula, Gala, 2005, digital video transferred to DVD, 26 minutes. Director/camera: Allan Sekula; Editor: Elizabeth Hesik.

ED What about your own video Gala? It strikes me as something of a watershed in your relationship with digital technology.

AS I decided to slow the shutter speed just to see into the dark recesses of the music center on opening night. It was a way of going “behind the scenes” or into the wings.

ED And the opening shot with its vignette?

AS I was thinking of it as a silent movie device, a way of looking at the rehearsal for the opening as a big experiment with images thrown onto a challenging surface, a gigantic outdoor cinema screen. They were projecting videos, of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, of Ed Harris painting in Pollock (2000), a veritable feast of creative gestures. The only imaginable way to respond to such spectacle was to regress to “primitive” film modes. But all in all, what I’ve made here is an ethnographic film of sorts, with the symphony audience as disoriented voyagers in a potentially hostile environment waiting for their limousines at the corner of First and Grand, fearful of being swept away by an invisible torrent into the Los Angeles River. It’s a view of the Los Angeles elite rather different from what we see at the Academy Awards, for example. The carnival in Venice must have been like this. While one waited for the gondola, everyone was drunk and wearing a mask but at the same time feeling sort of miserable. The frightened West Sider downtown. I think the discomfort of people waiting for their cars is a sign of how hard it is to re-center this city.

ED Disney Concert Hall becomes a symbol of a failed centrality, something that Los Angeles always has sought but never been able to attain.

AS Exactly. You can’t have a center in a city without a heart, to quote the Lou Rawls song about Chicago. Disney Hall itself radiates the merciless sparkle evoked by Mike Davis in City of Quartz (1990). It has become the very symbol of the new downtown, endlessly appearing as a backdrop in television commercials, especially for automobiles. One of the things the building celebrates is the automotive impulse, the metallic contours of automotive design, elevated to mannerism. The building itself is a gift to commercial photographers who use its reflective surfaces to bounce light onto fashion models and skateboarders. Given Gehry’s increasingly frequent self-presentation as a sculptor-architect, I sometimes think that this building and the Guggenheim Bilbao can be traced back to the spirit of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator (1930).

ED This would be one way of inserting Disney Concert Hall within a lineage of modernism. What about its function as myth in contemporary Los Angeles?

AS I was struck by how frequently the building has been described as a ship, heading inland to the center of the city, as if returning from a world voyage. Gehry himself acknowledges the billowing sails of the Dutch merchantmen and warships painted by Hendrick Vroom in the seventeenth century. Here we run up against the nonidentity of Los Angeles as a maritime city, a city that acknowledges its beaches but denies its port, one of the biggest in the world. The triumphalism of the building obscures a more embarrassing lesson about California’s history in the development of world capitalism. Outbound ships of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, loaded with hides and gold, and then oranges and oil, are replaced by inbound vessels of the present carrying toys from China.

ED So has Disney Hall then become an allegory for our collective voyage as inhabitants of Los Angeles?

AS Perhaps it’s a reworking and reversal of an older, modernist allegory of Southern California; think of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute (1965) with its central linear trench bearing out into the Pacific, starkly perpendicular with the horizon. This suggests a voyaging quest, the building’s existential project propels it outward. The biologist as modern day Odysseus. But the Southern California coast itself is dry and forbidding, lacking even the siren song of the gold rush further North. So the myth would have it, Disney Hall finally brings the quenching liquidity of music to a heartless and dry commercial center. Gehry’s gift to the city, the blinding brightness and reflective heat of the building’s surface, a property shared to a degree with Richard Meier’s Getty Center (1997), may be too much of a good thing.

ED A certain material hyperbole, everything taken to a point of exaggeration and excess.

AS Very characteristic of Los Angeles culture, but also something satirized within the local social realist tradition. Think of Arturo Bandini surviving only on oranges donated by a kindly Japanese fruit monger in John Fante’s Bunker Hill novel, Ask the Dust (1939). A sickening surplus toxifies the very symbol of California’s invigorating bounty. I think Gehry’s aggressiveness as an architect is encoded in that manner. Despite sophisticated design software, no one seems to have calculated that Disney Hall’s complicated lenticular surfaces could momentarily blind bus drivers or elevate by 20 degrees the interior temperature in adjacent buildings. Los Angeles is a city of sunshine and bright reflective surfaces, so let’s give people more. Let’s give people more oranges.

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Allan Sekula, Gala, 2005, digital video transferred to DVD, 26 minutes. Director/camera: Allan Sekula; Editor: Elizabeth Hesik.

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Allan Sekula, Gala, 2005, digital video transferred to DVD, 26 minutes. Director/camera: Allan Sekula; Editor: Elizabeth Hesik.

ED Is Disney Concert Hall a building that fundamentally does not want to acknowledge its location?

AS Baker’s piece quotes Gehry as saying in retrospect that he would have preferred to build the Concert Hall on the westside and not downtown. Despite the lineup of famous architects along Grand Avenue the downtown story is a clear case of subordination of artist-architects to the larger schemes of development companies.

ED This legacy of dashed hopes dates back at least to architect Arthur Erickson’s 1980 California Plaza Masterplan. A curtain wall granting visual access to the exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art and expansive outdoor plazas were eventually sacrificed to the maximizing of rentable commercial space.

AS So we end up instead with Arata Isozaki’s little jewel like MOCA (1986) flanked by nondescript high rises. Ironically, if the real estate bubble doesn’t burst, Gehry’s building will one day also be hemmed in and thus shaded by a forest of new skyscrapers.

ED This also confirms that architects and urban planners have lost any effective control over the design of the built environment.

AS Definitely. Baker pointed out to me that although the City of Los Angeles is looking for a chief city planner, this has generated shockingly little public discussion.

ED It is revealing if we contrast this with the situation in local museums, for articles about the director searches at the Los Angeles County Museum and the Getty Museum frequently appear in the Los Angeles Times. The city planner position goes virtually unmentioned, while selecting new heads of art museums is thoroughly debated.

AS The overall shift is toward a highly visible institutional culture and invisible civic affairs corrupted by the pressure of political fund-raising.

ED How does one rethink the practice of social documentary in such a setting?

AS Facing the Music starts with this question, calling both the genre and the social milieu to account. It shares this imperative with a few recent independent non-fiction films. James Benning’s Los (2001) insists on sustained looking at the physical environment of the city in a way that challenges the prevailing narrative codes of documentary and actually comes close to the cataloging embraced by many photographers but with a different temporality. We need to acknowledge that there was a great period of social documentary in Los Angeles stretching from the ’30s through the early ’60s. The key figures are few and mostly forgotten. Perhaps now is the time to rehistorcize the work of photographers Leonard Nadel and Max Yavno, who gave us distinctive Los Angeles versions of Lewis Hine and the Ashcan School. We could also place figures as disparate as Weegee and Ed Ruscha within this West coast lineage.

We can also reassess, as Thom Andersen does in his film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2004), the importance of neglected figures like Kent McKenzie and his films Bunker Hill (1959) and The Exiles (1961). Partly this is a question of cultural retrieval, but I think the current drive to re-center the city on the part of its elites calls for timely and dialectical counter argument. Just as people were and are evicted, and buildings demolished so also genres have been discredited and neglected. Los Angeles becomes the graveyard of documentary.

ED Does Los Angeles really present unique obstacles to a documentary sensibility?

AS The prevailing ideas are that everything is a mutable palimpsest, that social identity is dissolved by the endless masquerade of self-improvement, that there is no layer that can be designated as truth. The very mutability of the landscape, the sense of its ceaseless change and false facades confounds classic documentary notions of correspondence between the look of the place or thing or person and essential economic reality such as we might find in Walker Evans’s Sharecropper’s Boots (1936). This is what makes Ed Ruscha’s book Real Estate Opportunities (1970) so shattering in its marriage of bleakness and sunny optimism. So things can be visible but they can also be occluded at the same time.

ED This seems to be one of the main techniques of Los Angeles, to occlude precisely by making something spectacular.

AS Hyperbole is the main stock in trade of publicists, boosters and even anti-boosters in some artists. Yet redemptive hyperbole and apocalyptic hyperbole amount to the same thing. We should be alert to the way to booster discourse circles back into apocalyptic foreboding and vice versa. The prosaic and often boring reality of the grimy present moment is always excused either by imagining a better future or an even worse one.

ED What is most elusive is what we might describe as an honest materiality.

AS Right. Here we are now and this is the situation we face.

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Allan Sekula, Dripping Black Trapezoid (Lendo, 12/22/02). From Black Tide/Marea Negra, 2002–03.

ED Then what about the politics of the exhibition? Is there a possibility that Facing the Musiccould trigger a process of repressive tolerance in which it reads as confirming the intrinsically open and democratic character of Los Angeles culture and politics?

AS At this point it’s hard to say. A favorable article on the show appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and a writer for the Downtown News, which by and large reflects central city business interests, expressed similar views. Both pieces emphasized the critical stance of work in the show but found the playfulness and sometimes deliberately absurd attention to neglected details disarming. Maybe we have stumbled upon a Trojan horse strategy. People from the Philharmonic are actually visiting the Redcat space for the first time, which fulfills some of our ambitions for new audience relations. Overall, what I would like to see is a dialogue among artists, musicians, architects, planners, neighborhood activists, and ordinary citizens about the future of the city. At the very least, I hope that Facing the Music will disrupt the uncritical celebration of the new downtown.

ED What about your latest film project, Lottery of the Sea?

AS Actually, I’m working on two film projects, the other of which is a collaboration with my friend Noël Burch. That film, called The Forgotten Space, begins and ends with questions about the maritime imaginary in the work of Frank Gehry, and asks what we can make of the connection, or disconnection, between this sci-fi neo-baroque space of architecture and the space of the cargo container, linchpin of the global factory system. But that project is not as far along, since we are still looking for final production money. Lottery of the Sea was a way for me to continue my apprenticeship as a filmmaker, working slowly with material I filmed myself between 2001 and 2004. At this point it is nearly done, and since last November I’ve been showing it as a work-in-progress, for example at the Vienna Film Museum.

ED How does Lottery of the Sea extend the project of Fish Story, your earlier inquiry into contemporary maritime life? And how does the notion of risk conveyed in its title, which is taken from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, relate to the film’s geopolitical investigations?

AS It struck me that Smith introduces the concept of risk entirely through examples drawn from seafaring and sea trade: the sailor who risks all for meager pay, incommensurate with his skills; the wealthy ship owner who “insures himself” against risk by funding a fleet large enough to offset the inevitable loss of individual vessels. The concept of risk emerges with a measure of human sympathy and understanding, based no doubt on Smith’s own life-world at the edge of the North Sea, that is completely absent from the musings of our contemporary apostles of the free market.

As is the case in Fish Story, I follow a meandering path from ocean to ocean, and from ocean to sea, but with different landfalls and departures. The film begins in Japan, moves to Panama, and concludes in Spain, stopping first on the oil-fouled Atlantic coast of Galicia, and ending with the redeveloped Mediterranean littoral of Barcelona. Along the way, there are a number of detours, to the ancient agora in Athens and to the port of Piraeus, to a “millionaires’ fair” in Amsterdam, to a number of demonstrations in different cities against neoliberalism and then against the war in Iraq. In each of these contexts, “risk” takes on new meaning, is refracted differently by circumstances. The narration asks a question: “What does it mean to be a maritime nation, to harvest the sea, or to rule the waves?” This is posed for the inherently unstable power relations of the western Pacific, but applies less literally to choices faced in Panama and Spain, choices having to do with sovereignty and our fragile dominion over the sea.

ED In what way does the scene of the cleaning of the oil spill in Spain suggest a new form of global activism? The human chain presented a powerful allegory for the nature of cooperative struggle in the 21st century.

AS I was invited to Galicia in December 2002 by the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia, to make a project about the Prestige disaster for their weekly cultural supplement. Given what was already evident about the indifference, callousness and mendacity of the response to this calamity by Spain’s ruling party at the time, the right-wing Partido Popular, it occurred to me yet again that Spain was a breaking point in the hegemony of neoliberal ideology. What I produced for the newspaper was a sketch for a libretto for an imaginary opera, Black Tide, accompanied by photographs. I invited readers to contribute lyrics, and even wrote one brief verse in Gallego myself. While in Galicia, I also shot film. The idea emerged, for both the newspaper project and the film, that here was a new kind of popular resistance to the neoliberal disavowal of risk, a “collective Sisyphus.” The oil rolls in on the tide, and people work and work again, often without even the simplest of tools, their thumbs and fingers glued together into crude trowels. Of course the inner circles of a government influenced by Opus Dei might well have cynically celebrated the baroque beauty of this collective mortification of the flesh, but that was not the sort of thing that could be expressed openly in Spain at the time, although it was implicit in many press photographs. In fact, people worked with a resignation that was angry rather than submissive. And in time, that anger, fueled by even more official lies, brought down a government.

The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.

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Originally published in

BOMB 92, Summer 2005

Featuring interviews Edward Dimendberg and Allan Sekula, Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall, Nell McClister and Paul Chan, Sue de Beer and Nancy A. Barton, Heather McHugh, Susan Wheeler, Miranda July and Rachel Kushner, William Wegman and George Steel, Tony Conrad and Jay Sanders, and Carolyn Cantor. 

Read the issue
092 Summer 2005 1024X1024