I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Two interdisciplinary artists tackle the analogies between artistic, moral, and monetary value.
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Angie Keefer and Liz Magic Laser love to pull on loose threads. Their writings, videos, and installations—pitched across word and image, performance and everyday life—probe the institutional and economic conditions of contemporary art and deploy gesture to bring into relief the unexamined assumptions and metaphors that structure our social realities big and small. They undertook a conversation about their work and its place in the ever-changing topography of contemporary art.
Angie Keefer I’m curious about your theater training.Can you tell me more about the “Mind Meld” improv exercise you use in your performance class? Maybe we could even start by doing it.
Liz Magic Laser Mind Meld usually involves a circle of people, but we can try it with just us two. Basically, we stand facing each other and say any word that comes to mind. Then we repeat the exercise until we say the same word at the same time. It works through association, intuition, and eye contact.
AK Ok, let’s give it a go. Ready when you are.
AK and LML (together) One, two, three…
AK Ok, let’s give it a go. Ready when you are.
AK and LML (together) One, two, three…
AK Jump rope.
LML One, two, three.
AK Sssss … Sssss-nake.
LML Stain. (laughter)
Let’s try again.
LML Feeling. (laughter)
AK I tried to dominate you there by persisting with one category. But I did feel we were melding bodily, which demonstrates how crucial physical presence is for dialogue, though I much prefer to write when I know whatever’s being said is for the record.
LML Is that preference about having control?
AK Maybe it’s about precision, which takes the pejorative out of “control.” Even when I speak, I feel a need to be precise, so I often speak slowly, with gaps between phrases, as I carefully attempt to say what I mean. One thing I’ve noticed more since I’ve begun speaking in public is the difference between the effect of a person, a body, speaking to an audience and transcribed speech. When I listen to speech, I tend to listen for a text. I’m dubious of charisma, though I know the cues accompanying speech greatly influence spectators’ judgments of what has been said.
LML Right, it’s the impression made by the person—their live presence, their persona, their performance—that overwhelms our reception of their words.
AK This discrepancy between a text and its delivery is an important subject in your work. What we do may seem dissimilar at first, but we’re both preoccupied with the role of affect.
LML My interest in the engineering of public behavior—for instance, in the use of performance techniques by business leaders and politicians—comes in part from my initial discomfort with public speaking. When my work began to get attention, people started asking me to do interviews, and I felt apprehensive. I had, like you, a desire to maintain the precision of the words that frame my work, and I was hesitant about inadvertently constituting a public persona when I had put so much deliberate effort into the work and the writing that frames it. I felt anything I might spontaneously say could ruin or disrupt that. By the time I connected with your essay “Why Bother?” in 2012, where you analyze some awkward early experiences with teaching and public speaking, this performance anxiety was becoming a generative concern in my work.
AK I read that short text you wrote on the history of the interview in Art in Americain which you refer to the stilted, quasi-erotic exchange between Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck that inspired your performance piece I Feel Your Pain. I think it’s safe to venture that most people who appear to be spontaneous in live television interviews are thoroughly trained in oratory and media strategies, and how to—
LML —zero in on their message. They have prepared talking points.
AK Exactly. But there’s a further covert operation that occurs in art, some added effort to obscure the fact of this pointed strategy when it exists, because philosophically there’s a—
LML —clinging to authenticity.
AK Yes, the imperative to be authentic, specifically as a counterpoint to the media-savvy strategies associated with playing the market, as if authentic artists never pursue goals. It’s a kind of charade.
LML Another thing we have in common is our bald appropriation of market-research strategies. As the Armory Show’s “commissioned artist” in 2013, I set up a series of focus groups to determine the design of the artworks and paraphernalia I was tasked to make, including promotional paper matter, VIP cards, tote bags, and art objects to benefit MoMA and the Pat Hearn and Colin de Land Cancer Foundation.
AK Imagine how much they would’ve had to pay a marketing firm for that material!
LML I enlisted a savvy market researcher named Ben Allen to serve as the focus-group moderator. Ben runs a firm that deals with masculine products like high-end tequila and AXE body spray. We did a series of focus groups with Armory VIPs—collectors, critics, and curators. Ben showed them a ten-minute reel of my video and performance works and read my very earnest artist’s statement, then briefed them on the history of the Armory Fair—the somewhat misleading idea was that it was to be the centennial of the Armory Show when Duchamp caused a stir with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. A few weeks later, we did a second round of focus groups. I had created prototypes for art objects, VIP cards, T-shirts, and tickets derived from the branding ideas—ranging from an institutional critique approach to a luxe gold-embossed one—that emerged from our first round. These were then taste-tested during a “research and refinement phase” while I watched from behind a two-way mirror, which kind of felt like watching my own funeral.
AK (laughter) Because they were talking about your work and reading your artist’s statement/obituary?
LML Participants kept saying, “This is impossible! How is a performance and video artist going to—
AK —design a T-shirt?”
LML Exactly. I was working with parallel issues about value and the conundrums artists encounter in commercial situations. How can an artist interface with an art fair? The whole process was sort of embarrassing for the fair itself, and, at times, for me—but less so than for the fair, I think. (laughter) At the fair, I set up a two-way mirrored observation booth where my prototypes and final works were displayed, including Share in the Armory Show, which I think is most pertinent to your linking of art sales prices to fluctuating real estate or stock market values. An art collector in one of the focus groups mentioned the fair was owned by Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., which I later learned was in turn owned by Vornado Realty Trust. So I decided to buy three shares in their stock and frame them in gold, presenting them as readymades, and they sold out. The fair may have a different owner by now, though, because shortly after my focus groups, it went up for sale.
AK Do you know how much it sold for?
LML I don’t know if it sold in the end; I just know Merchandise Mart didn’t want it anymore.
AK Not after your marketing campaign. (laughter)
LML Exactly! (laughter)
AK The literalization of metaphors is an artistic approach that I usually respond to. It often makes explicit some implicit order. This seems to describe many of the steps of your Armory Show project, and how I went about producing Getting to Yes in 2015, a commission for an art fair in Mexico City. I hired a writer to script talking points and a performance artist to act as a salesperson at the fair, both with the clear directive to sell the supposed work, a series of graphic monoprints derived from a brand icon I had been hired to design by a fledgling encryption company.
LML Who did you commission to write the script?
AK An artist named Leila Peacock. I asked her and the performer and artist Steve Kado, to read a popular business management book called Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. It’s a legitimately interesting read about negotiation strategy. I had never sold work or even made much that could be sold, and I had no gallery representation, yet I was invited by Kunstverein Toronto to exhibit work of mine that didn’t yet exist. So I decided to invert our apparent positions and focus my energies on equipping this nonprofit to profit. KvT refused to show me the proposal they wrote. They actually said I wouldn’t have agreed to be involved if I had read it, but I know the work they referenced was Area Variance, a photograph of two dilapidated houses in the town where I lived at the time that I had made for another institution, Objectif Exhibitions in Antwerp. I had had the front facades of these houses painted with shimmery gold auto-body paint and photographed. The photo was then exhibited in a gilded frame and theatrically lit. I set a preposterous price for the work—
LML That’s the one where the price of the work shifts based on the value of the property the houses are on?
AK Yes, the last price paid for the properties was $45,000, so that’s the current price of the work. The property hasn’t been resold since then, though $260,000 has been offered. The houses are in Hudson, New York, which was until recently an impoverished town, but is now a hot real estate market, largely due to people in the art and media industries who’ve bought buildings and opened businesses there, making it a weekend destination. Property values have skyrocketed, but the town remains starkly segregated economically.
LML You draw a range of analogies between monetary, moral, and artistic value in your writing. I’m taken with how you see the artist’s project as defining a scope of values through material and discursive means.
AK At the art fair, the salesperson-performer succeeded in selling prints for the price of an ounce of gold. He got to “yes” in the sense that he persuaded collectors to confer the monetary value, creating a specific symbolic and economic equivalence, which was the object of the negotiation. I recently heard that someone in Hudson is selling small photo prints of the gold houses, which also appear regularly on Instagram. So, while Area Variance hasn’t sold yet, the spectacle of it has been absorbed into a feedback loop contributing to the town’s growing valuation. I see those categories you name as systemically intertwined, despite tendencies within critical art discourse to simplify their differences, as if matters of economy, ethics, and art are separable, and—in commercially-driven discourse, to simplify their overlap—as if monetary value were synonymous with artistic value.
LML Yeah, even though the idea that an artwork is constituted by its social and institutional context is well-established, we’re often still dealing with an artwork as something discrete, willfully obscuring all these tentacles extending from it and veins feeding into it that determine its value.
AK Exactly. I think of any particular artwork as akin to that illusory vanishing point where straight lines converge in the far distance. While different perspectives on this same vanishing point might overlap, the essence of my mental diagram is that any given artwork is at once crucial and only barely significant to the vast processes organized all around it. I’m most interested in works that seem to purposively address, and possibly even inflect, this web of contingency.
LML I’m thinking about how one’s interests change or intersect over time. In a way, you mark time with texts like “Futures,” by continually revising the text for publication and by filming a new waterfall for each accompanying installation ofFountain. The work morphs and assumes a live or performative dimension. There are likewise moments in your writing where you bring shifts in your personal perspective to bear on your reading of historical or canonical texts. For instance, in “Why Bother?” you talk about how in college you saw Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color as completely apolitical and found no value in it.
AK And years later I saw it differently, as a schema of how meaning is created through social processes. Speaking of that, I want to ask you about an older work of yours, Distressed (2009), where you had dancers in new blue jeans moving together on a busy street, wearing construction safety vests, and dancing such that their knees and butts were scraping against the ground. During one scene a few dancers swing another over a grate until the seat of her jeans effectively becomes “distressed.” By the end, they’re wearing these high-style-by-1987-standards stonewashed jeans full of holes in all the right places.
LML Yeah, it’s funny. I suppose I was thinking about value when I made Distressed. And that’s because—
AK —so much labor went into wearing out those jeans!
LML Right! The choreography was based on three types of work—individual sweatshop labor, assembly-line labor, and construction work—and five hot spots on the jeans that needed to be distressed according to fashion standards: the butt, thighs, pockets, knees, and ankles. Jeans were originally the worker’s garb, and then in the ’50s middle- and upper-class young people started sporting jeans as a gesture of identification with the working class.
AK That’s now completely sublimated.
LML The reference has been lost, but the idea of endowing something with greater value through symbolic degradation persists. To wear clothing that’s threadbare in the right way while still commanding respect for your social status is a demonstration of power. It’s not far off from the modernist investment in deskilling in art.
AK The idea that power could be conveyed through coded gestures or signs of degradation relates to the idealization of the artist who supposedly defies the pressure of market forces by making nothing, earning nothing, refusing to sign anything—
LML Refusing to have their name on the show roster. Presence by absence.
AK The success of total abnegation.
LML Christopher D’Arcangelo is perhaps the quintessential example of an artist who makes this gesture. It’s a polemical position that holds value and interest in part because it can be so irritating, but artists who mimic Duchamp or D’Arcangelo’s strategies without reinventing them are difficult for me to stomach. Elsewhere, you talk about Charles Ponzi in relation to Duchamp’s attitude toward the “art game” and the apparent con he proposed to Tristan Tzara that they market a Dada amulet promising financial success.
AK Duchamp worried about money, and I wanted to reintroduce this fact into the stories and critical tools developed from his work, specifically regarding confidence games and their role in defining works of art. So I retold Ponzi’s story alongside Duchamp’s letter to Tzara sketching out what seems to be a get-rich-quick idea. If you read The Rise of Mr. Ponzi: The Long-Suppressed Autobiography of a Financial Genius, you’ll find Ponzi was also a pretty good storyteller.
LML I love the quote you use from Ponzi about giving his victims a good show well worth the cost of admission.
AK ”Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price.” And it was! In today’s dollars, Ponzi’s scheme cost about $150 million—the high end of what any single artwork fetches, but far less than Bernie Madoff’s scheme or the Wall Street bailout.
LML You also make a spectacle of playing the market with your Duchamp namesake, Fountain. For that installation the forward or backward flow of your waterfall footage is dictated by real-time fluctuations in commodities futures indexes.
AK When I was invited to contribute as a writer to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, I agreed on the condition that the writing have a corollary presence as a work in the exhibition, and I proposed that both would address the spectral economies of art. My essay, “Futures,” begins by conflating different meanings of the single word “value” and citing a talk Duchamp gave at the end of his life in which he asked an audience of students in Philadelphia, “Where do we go from here?” He was lamenting the commodification of art, and my essay ends with an explanation of how financial derivatives markets work. By invoking conflated meanings of “future,” I tried to offer an answer to Duchamp’s question. The salient parts of Fountain are variables—the video footage of moving water, the market data sources—so the visual form of the work changes each time it’s exhibited, as does its price since that’s based on the current volume of the Dow Jones. Just as a waterfall is both pedestrian and sublime, in the writing I attempt to use language and subjects that are common and immense at once. Commodities promise transcendence but deliver mundanity—that’s the fundamental con—whereas art can operate by other means.
LML But the difference isn’t always obvious.
AK No. In Distressed, you exaggerated mundane gestures, bringing into relief latent or forgotten meanings. It strikes me that while your performances have expanded through more discursive means—as with the Armory project or your recent work involving actors who aren’t acting so much as sharing their political views in an apparent group-therapy scenario—you seek to illuminate and reincorporate politically significant meanings that have been obscured.
LML Yes, I’m interested in how market research and therapy both use discourse as a “treatment,” and I suppose my use of goal-oriented interview forms carries through to my primal therapy project, Primal Speech. In this case, I cast actors who had strong political beliefs about Trump and Brexit as my “patients,” auditioning a few dozen people before choosing a pro-Trump and an anti-Trump person, a pro-Brexit and an anti-Brexit person. I sought out people who would allow me to conflate their personal traumas with their political frustrations. I explained to them beforehand that the project would involve primal therapy, a radical therapeutic method from the ’70s that focused on abreaction: the cathartic reexperiencing of a traumatic event. In this method the therapist is much more active, more like a director. Once they get a patient to start talking about how they were abused as a child, for instance, they almost hypnotize them into reliving that memory. I was interested in its similarity to Stanislavski’s concept of emotional memory, which became the basis for method acting.
AK How does the therapy work?
LML The therapist will say, “Do you remember what you were wearing? What was the weather like? How old were you? What did he say? What did you say?” Then the therapist directs the patient to speak to the abuser and say what they never got to say in the past.
AK And the actors you cast were responsive to it?
LML Yes, I collaborated with a life coach trained in primal therapy techniques, Valerie Bell, and she made the Trump supporter aware that a Russian woman he’d been dating was trying to scam him. At first I thought Valerie was jumping to conclusions, but in the next session, it came out that she was right. He had sort of known it but hadn’t let himself recognize it, and he was very disappointed and angry. And the irony was, of course, that this Russian woman was an illegal immigrant. She duped and left him, and I directed him to channel his rage by talking about his analogous feelings of Hillary being untrustworthy. While this man told Trump he is the father he wished he’d had, another man yelled at Trump as if he were his own abusive, homophobic father.
AK So, in this case, it’s like you’ve worked backward from reductive “gestures”—polarized political positions—to highly specific, formative personal experiences. George Lakoff’s thesis about the simple moral frameworks underpinning political identities seems relevant here. He discovered that the basis for our concept of proper government is our deeply internalized ideas about the nuclear family. There are two main types: a patriarchal “strict father” model and a “nurturing parent” model.
LML Yes! In this train of thought, the politician is always either the disciplinary or the permissive father.
AK Or rather the nurturing parent, since in Lakoff’s version the latter is gender neutral. Interestingly, the voters who decide elections are bi-conceptuals—people who have a mix of those two moral frames. Lakoff documented that a fringe of wealthy conservatives strategically funded think-tanks specifically to research how these moral frameworks are constructed in order to reappropriate for the right the signs, images, and words prompting bi-conceptuals to lean left. “Freedom” and “liberty,” for example, are historically progressive ideals. The civil rights, feminist, and workers’ movements extended legal agency and protections—in other words, freedom and liberty—to previously disenfranchised groups. Today, these are conservative buzzwords.
LML The right has also found ways to make the white working class feel that their liberties and job security have been diminished by rampant immigration. They found a way to reframe it—
AK —covertly in terms of race.
LML And in terms of freedom and liberty as finite substances that have been or are being taken away from “legitimate” Americans, I often think about how conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles used agitprop strategies which led to ACORN losing its funding and subsequently shutting down. Posing as a pimp and a prostitute, the two went into social services offices and sought taxpayer money. That was a right-wing use of the invisible theater the Yes Men were already famous for, but perhaps because it was more crude and simplistic, O’Keefe’s stunt was sadly more effective. He got an entire institution shut down.
AK I’m glad you’ve brought up public funding because I see a connection between the defunding of the NEA, the ’80s culture wars, and what has happened to political discourse in the US in recent years. The disembowelment of the NEA was only the tip of an iceberg. It was a way of dismantling the infrastructure not just of the arts but also of progressive politics. Artists tend to lack economic agency, but they’re potentially influential through their public work. Clearly, the culture wars are ongoing, only now artists have internalized the idea of their social and economic superfluousness. It’s been only a few short steps from defunding the arts to defunding arts programs in public schools to defunding public education.
LML I’ve thought a lot about this, specifically regarding the conservative family-values rhetoric that co-opted 1920s progressive ideals of child protection. I did a performative lecture for a Michael Jackson-themed event (at Recess for artist Simone Leigh’s Be Black Baby series in 2010) comparing photographs by Lewis Hine of children working in factories in the early 1900s to photographs of Michael Jackson growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. At an Oxford commencement speech Jackson once gave, he said something like, “I am the product of a lack of a childhood—of that innocent time when the biggest care was your spelling test or eating an ice cream.” He paints a picture of an innocent childhood he never had, so I compared images of him as a child to Hine’s photographs of children in factories, and Jackson record covers to propaganda posters, looking at how the progressive movement rebranded the child as innocent and in need of protection. That wasn’t a given in 1900. Children were considered little people, fair game for exploitation.
AK Small workers.
LML Right. The idea of childhood innocence reaches its apotheosis with the child celebrity, putting the child back to work as an exploited or reified commodity. I pointed out that in the ’70s, when Michael Jackson was growing up, the right appropriated the progressive language of child protection in a deliberate effort to limit the liberties of others. “Family values” rhetoric surged then, its lingo taken directly from the progressive movement, but reframed to deal a blow to the sexual and political libertarianism of the ’60s—the conservative claim being that we have to protect children from hippies and homosexuals, whom conservatives cast as predators intent on defiling children’s innocence.
AK Growing up in the suburbs in the ’80s, I remember the hysteria about Satan worshippers, child abductions, daycare center molestation cases, adults with recovered memories of suppressed abuse—all of that coincided with the rise of talk television.
LML One of the most famous cases, in Kern County, California, turned out to be fabricated. Strangely, right after I started working with child actors, I received an invitation to respond with a new work to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Mapplethorpe show at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. This invitation brought Mapplethorpe, the culture wars, and family-values rhetoric back to the forefront for me. Incidentally, when I was twenty-one, I worked for Andres Serrano, so from that point forward I’ve had some special awareness of Piss Christ, and of Serrano and Mapplethorpe’s peculiar status in the art world. I got hold of the transcripts from the cases brought against the CAC and its curator at the time, and I spent two months poring over the material. At one point, I proposed to do an Ice Capades trial in Cincinnati, but they didn’t have the funding for it.
AK A Mapplethorpe Ice Capades? (laughter)
LML No, it was going be a futuristic custody dispute on ice where the child emancipates itself from the role of the innocent being. Instead, for a 2015 commission with Mercer Union, I made a video called Kiss and Cry involving two child figure skaters in Toronto that explored this rhetorical use and abuse of the child. There’s a quote about rock climbing in your essay “To Whom It May Concern” that I really identify with, and that also reminds me of how this seven-year-old figure skater I worked with, Anna, would quietly give herself a pep-talk before a difficult move: “I began a conversation (aloud) between a frightened child and a coaxing parent, fully inhabiting both roles at once.”
AK That’s a true story from a cliff face. I had to learn very quickly to be kind to my terrified self. While we’re on the subject of innocent children, I want to ask you about your teaching.
LML Currently, I’m teaching a performance-art class at Columbia University that begins with the choreography of everyday gestures. I give a lecture about performance art over the last century through the lens of communicative gesture, and we move on from there to nonverbal speech, dialogue, and developing associations between semantic and somatic means. Yesterday a student brought in baseball signals, and I asked the class to imagine a narrative intention for each gesture. In the type of pedagogy I learned, it’s a no-no to be prescriptive, but in my own teaching I’ve incorporated a workshopping model from acting and dance practice. I see this process as akin to mind-melding in the best sense.
AK I sometimes teach a course that entails each student taking ten minutes to present in front of the group, but the performance aspect is a red herring since the course is really meant to hone interpretation skills. The emphasis, instead, is on the structured group response following each presentation. Students are randomly assigned to three groups, each group either describing everything they’ve observed, or analyzing the structure of what they’ve observed, or drawing associations to shared references, in turn. Subjective, qualitative responses are outlawed, so no one begins, “I really liked it when” or “That bit should’ve been red” which makes the task more challenging.
LML So it’s recapitulation, analysis, and what was the third mode of response?
AK Association—drawing connections. The crux of the course is learning to make analogies on the basis of structural analysis, an essential critical skill.
LML You’re framing the terms of group exchange in a way that isn’t typical in daily conversation, which makes me think back to the artificial construct of the interview form and our initial conversation about spontaneity versus precision in the written and spoken word.
AK Yes, productive discomfort.
LML Being both curious about and uncomfortable with the performance of self in public connects with your disapproving fascination with the con and the con artist, too.
AK For us the most radical con would be a transparent one.
Angie Keefer’s FIRST CLASS, SECOND THOUGHTS, INTERMINABLE SWELL opens in January 2017 at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, Winnipeg. Her work has appeared in MoMA PS1’s Greater New York and the Whitney Biennial, and she has had solo exhibitions at Kunstverein Munich, Objectif Exhibitions, and Yale Union in Portland. She is a founder of The Serving Library and coeditor of their house journal, The Bulletins.
Liz Magic Laser is a video and performance artist who has had solo shows at Paula Cooper Gallery, Westfälischer Kunstverein, Mälmo Konsthall, and other venues. The first survey exhibition of her work took place at Kunstverein Göttingen in 2016, and she has upcoming shows at CAC Brétigny and Jupiter Artland.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee