My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
David Levine is an artist at play. His practice is a living mutant of disciplines and interests: theater, art history, biography, method acting, spectatorship, performance art, and more—all linked by a trickster’s enthusiasm.
Our discussions are always a pleasurable and at-times-hard-to-control spiral of movies, books, art, and TV, without hierarchy of value. We both suspect we’ve probably learned the most about the world through movies, and that this isn’t a bad thing if one considers movies to be admissible evidence—sly yet totally valid imprints—in the ongoing investigation of Life.
—James N. Kienitz Wilkins
James N. Kienitz Wilkins When we met at the the MacDowell Colony you invited me to your studio—the lair of David Levine. I felt like I was entering your mind. It was down an icy slope off the main road, and you had blacked out the windows to screen all these ’70s movies.
David Levine Yeah, with the fire going.
JNKW And whiskey. It was this domestic space containing your obsessions. I was reintroduced to a number of movies through the guided context of someone with a very particular relationship to the ’70s.
DL Daniel Mendelsohn has this great explanation of Mad Men’s appeal for people born in the ’60s—they’re just trying to figure out why their parents are so weird. Same as the Pictures Generation, poring over images from their childhood. For me it’s ’70s movies—Shampoo and Rosemary’s Baby are the culture my parents were swimming through when they had me. It’s a way of figuring out what they were seeing, what they thought they were doing.
JNKW Dramatic irony. Mad Men specialized in this. You live in the current moment, so everything is a foregone conclusion. You know that smoking is actually bad for you, but you painfully watch the characters stumble to this known ending.
DL But there’s also this moment when you want to be merciful, really try to understand how your parents made the mistakes they made. And the only way to figure that out is to forget what you know and immerse yourself in what they were capable of seeing. I feel like when I was a kid looking up at all these adults, I was preparing to be a grownup for the ’70s. I think I would have been a great ’70s grownup. But I’m completely unprepared for the twenty-first century.
JNKW Yeah, what happened to the adulthood that you deserve? (laughter)
DL You don’t realize you’re going to have to be a grownup in an era you have no experience with.
JNKW This idea that being a grownup is a role… a part to be performed, even if you don’t really realize it. How has this manifested in your work?
DL It’s funny. For a long time, my work was about actors in big enclosed spaces who don’t seem to realize that they’re acting and being watched. In Bauerntheater (2007) I had an actor on this two-square-acre public field, playing a farmer by planting potatoes all day. For Habit (2010–12) I commissioned a play from Jason Grote—who actually wrote for Mad Men—an anonymous piece of “gritty realism” set in a ranch house, and then I built the ranch house in an exhibition space and had actors perform the play on a loop all day. But they had no staging, and the house had appliances that actually worked, so sometimes the big fight scene would happen while someone was cooking lunch, or sometimes it would happen while someone was taking a shower and another person was watching TV. Basically, the house was their whole world. Like, the characters had no idea audiences were running around the outside and peering in through the window frames. Being blind to context. That’s where the pathos came from: they’re acting and they don’t know that they’re acting. Like Marlo says in The Wire, “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.” That seems like the saddest thing in the world.
The more work I did, the more I realized that, formalist and cold as these pieces seemed, they’re actually pretty autobiographical, about feeling isolated or trapped behind my skin, my role, or feeling excluded by the walls of a house, like I’m on the outside looking in. But that feeling of exclusion is also a desire to preserve your cover: What if you stand out? What if you think you’re normal but everyone around you knows more than you do? Camouflage.
JNKW The body. Perhaps there is a genetic aspect to your work.
DL Perhaps. One time, my friend Eben Klemm—he likes to torture me with weird collages he makes—collaged some of my mom’s artwork against my own. My mom was making dollhouses, these obsessively furnished micro-interiors with plexi windows. And Eben made a collage with Habit on one side and one of my mom’s dollhouses on the other.
JNKW What was she making dollhouses for?
DL She just does that. She’s artistically productive.
JNKW Does she sell them on eBay or something?
DL She has sold a few, but no, it’s mainly just her thing. But the juxtaposition showed me how you wind up inheriting tons of stuff, even conceptual structures, when you don’t want to. I’m curating a show at the Elizabeth Foundation with Prem Krishnamurthy, who runs P! gallery. Six working artists whose parents are less, er—”legitimized” artists. Paired together. It’s called Progeny!
JNKW Are you going to be showing your mom’s dollhouses?
DL It’s not up to me. The idea is to send a curator over to the parent’s studio and to the kid’s studio, and then the curator will decide which works make sense together. Like what Eben did with the collage. The artists give up control. So what’s revealed is all the ways in which you may be more indebted to your parents than you wanted to be, and the awkwardness that that entails.
JNKW You’ve been an actor in this long genealogical thing. And then, your dad was an executor of Mark Rothko’s estate, and you’ve been making work about that. You are an inheritor of your parents’ relationship to an art world that is big and nefarious.
DL Yeah. I always thought my work split off into two directions: the stuff with actors, and then the projects about my dad and Mark Rothko. I have a hard time connecting them because they don’t seem to have much to do with each other.
JNKW Maybe they don’t need to cross over in a direct way. There’s definitely thematic stuff. Like paranoia—I’m curious, in the recent lecture you gave at MoMA PS1, you mentioned the hallucination your dad had, the square.
DL Growing up, I didn’t really know anything about my dad, and I didn’t really care to know anything about him. He died of cancer after he and my mom divorced. She wrote a poem about being with him on his deathbed. And he was all fucked up on morphine and kept pointing to a “square of paranoia” in the corner of the hospital room.
And then when I turned forty, I started finding out all this stuff about my dad and Rothko. I had done a one-off performance, Elegant Solutions, in 2010 at MoMA when the AbEx show was up, and someone had come up to me after and said, “I knew your dad. He’d be very proud.” And I was like, “What?” And she vanished. And being that we were at MoMA, I remembered that my dad had been involved with the scandal over Rothko’s estate. That moment fused the world I move in and the world my dad moved in, New York in the ’70s, and then I started doing research.
He was an anthropologist. Not art-world at all. But he was one of Rothko’s best friends, and he was made an executor of Rothko’s estate, and that went south really fast. I wrote about the whole story for Triple Canopy. But eventually I realized something about that image of the square. You know, he wasted the last ten years of his life dealing with fallout over these super-famous paintings: he lost his job, his marriage, his home. He was a CUNY professor. He just wanted to do anthropology, and yet he was cast as this villain. So you think about this poor guy, his life was kind of wrecked by this trial. This trial over colorful floating rectangles. And then he’s pointing to a square of paranoia in the corner. It’s like, Of course!
JNKW And then you become like a character in one of these ’70s thrillers. Some operative comes up to you at MoMA and whispers, “I knew your dad,” and you’re thrust into this saga. It reminds me of Warren Beatty in the The Parallax View. You’re on this slippery slope trying to find out who you are and what you’re meant to be doing.
DL Right, and all I’ve got for evidence is a box of my dad’s scratched negatives, super-8 footage, and tape-recorded phone calls. It’s like The Conversation. That sense of ’70s paranoia was really formative for me in terms of performance as well. There were all these weird infiltrations going on at the time: Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being, Vito Acconci’s Following Piece, Tehching Hsieh’s one-year outdoor performance in the ’80s, or Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Roberta Breitmore. Fake people walking among real people undetected, turning the space around them into fiction. That possibility haunts me. Piper shot these famous images of The Mythic Being in Harvard Square, which is also where they shot parts of Love Story a few years earlier, which is also where my parents met a few years before that. So you start experiencing certain places as possessed, where one person has been swapped for another, or one fiction for another, or one era for another, and no one notices or mourns. That’s the idea behind Private Moment’s reenactments of movie scenes shot in Central Park. They take place at the original locations, they loop all day, but they’re unmarked—and unremarked. Like ghosts that don’t know they’re dead. They just blend in. Polanski’s really good at this. There’s always a scene like the one in Chinatown where workers in the background are scraping one person’s name off a door and replacing it with another.
JNKW Freshening up, covering up.
DL Rosemary’s Baby is also about getting swapped. This is one of those places where I feel like you and I overlap—this really ominous sense that no one cares if you replace one person with another.
JNKW Right. Once someone asked me about my short Special Features (2014): “Why three characters?” I think three is a perfect number for setting up the potential for infinite swapping. Because two’s company, three’s a crowd. Once you have a crowd, it just gets going. You’ve gone so far as to use the word “material” to refer to actors. There is something a bit dehumanizing about that.
DL The whole industry is dehumanizing. Point blank. There’s a reason why Rosemary’s husband, the guy who sells her up the river, is a professional actor.
JNKW I didn’t mean dehumanizing in a bad way. We assume it’s bad.
DL It’s bad if you’re an actor. But when I said “materials,” it was less about actors as inanimate clay and more that Bruce Nauman idea: “Okay, if I’m an artist and I have a studio, anything I produce in my studio must be art.” And the materials I’m most confident working with are language and actors. I’m always uncertain when I work in sculpture or make a print: Why this color rather than that? Why this paper rather than that? I don’t have a basis to decide one way or the other. But when I’m directing actors, and I’m shaping time that way, I know exactly what I want and why. That’s the medium I’m comfortable in. Therefore, my “materials.”
JNKW I’m completely with you on that. Why add more objects? Maybe it’s a trauma from being an art handler, but I’m like, that stuff’s ultimately going to be in storage, or someone’s going to collect it, which is just a high-end type of storage.
DL But a lot of language around ephemeral or time-based art winds up being an attempt to turn actions into objects. The art world talks about performances being “editioned” or whatever. But that’s just showcasing the market’s conceptual virtuosity. Like, “See? Our categories can monetize anything.” It’s cool that Tino Sehgal only sells performances by means of verbal contracts, but he’s just facilitating a market incursion.
JNKW So that’s why the monologue in Bystanders (2015) is called—
DL —Edition of Eight. Eight actors, each doing the same monologue, but in their own way.
JNKW You often have actors perform challenging cycles, like the nearly endless looping scenes in Private Moment, or the long monologue in Edition of Eight. These are professional actors. They’ve prepared and put in all this labor, and you are very much extracting “work” from them.
DL I think my stuff falls into two categories for actors—some pieces are just really cruel, like Bauerntheater or Private Moment. In Bauerntheater all the acting is internal. As the actor, you have to do manual labor, ten hours a day, for a month, in character: just farming potatoes, as someone else. For Private Moment, you’ve got a five-minute loop and you’ve got to do it exactly as they did in the movie, for six hours a day all summer long. Unforgiving. But then there are other works like Habitor Bystanders where there’s a trade-off: you have to do this script over and over, but now it’s ninety minutes long, so you have room to explore, and I don’t lay down any markers about how to play it or stage it. It’s like an eight-lane highway, and I don’t care what you do within those eight lanes, so long as you stick to the script and it feels organic. For those projects, actors actually get more freedom to create than in a theater.
For me, gallery acting is a lot closer to film acting. It lets me get rid of all that pressure. I mean, I love drawing-room dramas. I can stage every movement. I can direct everything super precisely—
JNKW —and weigh everything down with meaning.
DL Exactly, and sometimes that’s fun. Like building a ship in a bottle. But in a gallery, the spectators are so unreliable that I feel more comfortable asking the actors to be unreliable. And they get into that freedom, and the result is this crazy narrative flow.
JNKW That’s the best argument I’ve heard for galleries in a long time.
DL I’m fascinated by the tension between a really conservative approach to storytelling and a situation that can’t possibly sustain it.
JNKW What about actually making movies?
DL I think we both just want to be making features.
JNKW Oh yeah. Features with actual budgets.
DL But ultimately, we’d rather crank out more work. You lose a lot of time trying to get a feature made. I think the point is, I’m still really committed to the idea of a narrative arc. I love the way actors prepare to go from beginning to end, and how much the narrative winds up being about the audience, who need to be watching from a fixed vantage to shape what they’re seeing as narrative: that’s how they know the story’s moving. That’s why theaters are built the way they are.
JNKW Right. Narrative is about understanding movement, but not necessarily achieving the moral finality of a “story,” which I think is what the commercial feature has come to represent.
DL And theater as well. But in a gallery, you can’t count on that fixed audience. So for an exhibition like Bystanders or Habit, the question—and this goes back to spectatorship, this reciprocal relationship between narrative and the spectator—was what happens if the audience can just do whatever they want? The actors who perform Bystanders learn a script with a conventional beginning, middle, and end. As an actor, you can prepare this; it’s not just a mess of language. But the virtue of working in an exhibition space is that you can’t control when the audience comes in or out. And since you listen differently based on where you think you are in the story, there is a mismatch between the narrative the actors are performing and the narrative the spectators are expecting to hear. It makes the encounter different. It was the same with Habit. Plus, because the actors were making different staging choices with every performance, the narrative was unrecognizeable each time anyhow.
JNKW We’ve both recently made pieces that contain movie pitches—your Edition of Eight and my Indefinite Pitch (2016), which is a monologue over still images, a movie that isn’t quite moving. I feel like there’s something about the pitch that doesn’t hedge bets. Even though it’s literally a bet-making tool, where you’re hoping someone will buy your idea, it’s ultimately this pathetic “This is what I’ve got.” You’re putting it all out there.
DL It’s purely conceptual. It’s a proposition.
JNKW It questions what to value: the process or the product. And you really feel that in the Bystanders show, when the characters use art objects as props. When the actor suddenly picks up the bionic woman face, I thought, Oh, wait a second, is this going to reduce the value of that sculpture? Again, more art handler trauma. But I think that was a nice moment to ask, Wait, what is the art here?
DL I was interested in toggling between artwork and prop, and the way in which postconceptual art tends to produce objects as props for ideas. When you enter Bystanders, you walk into the empty gallery, and there’s a series of prints (Vertebrae by Vertebrae) and a sculpture, and it all looks like legit artwork—I mean, it is legit artwork, infused with my own doubt about making things. But by the end, it turns out that all of those artworks—which I made before I wrote the monologue—have been written into the script. So does that mean they’re props? I think pitching is much purer than anything that could actually get made from a pitch. Also, a pitch has to be performed. It exists in a state of pure enthusiasm somehow. Even when you’ve done a pitch eight or nine times, you always find yourself getting caught up in it again because you’re obligated to communicate enthusiasm, and because you’re envisioning it. Did you ever see The Scarlet Pumpernickel?
DL It’s a Daffy Duck cartoon where he goes to Hollywood to pitch a version of the The Scarlet Pimpernel.
JNKW Are you serious? (laughter)
DL He’s got the whole script, and you see just the big desk and the exec being like, “What you got for me?” Daffy has to act out the entire thing. And he’s getting more and more frenetic. “It’s getting so you have to kill yourself to sell a story around here.” He says that after he ends his pitch by shooting himself. There’s just this obstacle—we can’t get these movies made, either because we don’t know how or because we’re embarrassed to have come up with such commercial ideas in the first place.
JNKW I have a memory of coming up with the “eBoyz” pitch in my short B-ROLL with Andre (2015). I was on vacation in Rio, staying at this really nice place, cool breeze, monkeys in the trees. I came up with all the characters and wrote some breakdowns, and I was like, Shit, man, this could be huge. And I had to make this decision. I was having this nice, leisurely two-week vacation, feeling like I could do anything when I got back…
DL I know that feeling.
JNKW And I was like, Yeah, I could write this script and send it off to some people. But I decided I wasn’t going to fucking write this thing, so I embedded it into a work closer to my actual taste.
DL That goes back to talking about making objects—what are you going to spend your time doing? I came up with the movie the actors pitch in Edition of Eight at MacDowell. And I knew I could either spend five years trying to get that ridiculous film made, or produce tons of other work and joke about the film with my friends. I think each of us has asked, “What if the pitch becomes the work?” And we have permission to do that, because we make weird work. I don’t know about you, but for me at least, I wish I was a little less weird. I wish the work would come out a little more normal.
JNKW And you’d be healthier and wealthier.
DL Yeah. Sometimes I’m like, I’m weird because I believe in weirdness as an ethic, and then sometimes I’m like, I’m weird because I just don’t know how to be normal.
JNKW Genetics, man. I was watching The Thing recently—thinking of your piece Mutabilitie (2015), which is a glitched-out mutated version of this movie about inner nature. What’s your thing about The Thing?
DL I came to The Thing through Alien. Alien and The Thing are both based on the same novella, Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell Jr.
JNKW Oh really?
DL People are trapped in a situation with something alien and no one knows who’s got it. This goes back to that basic pathos—you think you are one thing, but suddenly a body bursts out of you and it turns out you are another thing. The movie pitch in Edition of Eight is about this guy who thinks he’s an actor but is actually a robot and has no idea.
JNKW There are those great moments in The Thing when they’re doing the blood testing, and everyone is so terrified of themselves.
DL One thing that makes The Thing so visceral now are the special effects. In an era when you can do anything digitally, just knowing that analog fucking head with the crab legs and stalk eyes coming out of it actually existed for a moment, in physical space, makes the whole problem of the movie feel twice as real.
JNKW Did you know that the theatrical tagline was “Man is the warmest place to hide”?
DL I didn’t. That’s awesome.
JNKW This idea that you don’t know what’s lurking inside of people is all throughout your work with actors. And now, today, we’re in this new paranoid Trump moment. I really feel like your ideal ’70s adulthood is coming to pass. Have you been following the Pizzagate thing?
DL Actually, just two days ago I started a treatment, a next-level pitch for a rewrite of The Parallax View based on the alt-right movement and Pizzagate.
JNKW Oh my god.
DL I woke up a few mornings ago wondering if things would get so bad that someone would try to assassinate Trump—like we always worried would happen to Obama. But then I realized that I was imagining it like the opening scene of The Parallax View: fictional Trump Tower, gold, marble, a reception; then, suddenly, the smoked-glass window of this forty-fifth-floor ballroom shatters. You can see it, right? The crazy thing is that the paranoia used to be a trait of the left. In the ’70s it was always Warren Beatty or Robert Redford as intrepid reporters who would find themselves at the center of a vast right-wing conspiracy. Now that paranoia belongs to the right. Like Alex Jones. Or that dude who went into the Comet Ping Pong pizza place and fired an automatic rifle, saying he was investigating Pizzagate. He’s Warren Beatty now; he’s Robert Redford, the lone seeker of truth. He’s the hero of the movie.
JNKW In the report, he was like, “I just got a modem installed and I saw this stuff online about child sex abuse…”
DL He tried to “self-investigate.”
JNKW Yeah. And then he realized the “intel wasn’t 100 percent.” He uses phrases from movies or video games.
DL And he’s not a vet. He’s not special forces. Like, “Oh, I got bad intel.” So I started trying to write this treatment. Okay, so you’ve got to imagine the lead, instead of being Warren Beatty, he’s got to be like a Breitbart journalist. And the President gets assassinated. And then there’s a Warren Commission kind of thing, where they’re like, “It was just a lone shooter. He was influenced by ISIS,” or something like that.
JNKW And this Breitbart guy is like, “No! By Hillary Clinton!”
DL Yeah, like, “It was Black Lives Matter! Plus Hillary Clinton! Plus ISIS! In collusion!” And he’s going to get to the bottom of this. And he gets lost in a sea of fake news, and just goes more and more off the deep end, like in The Conversation.
JNKW But he has faith, and that’s what the right is all about. I mean faith in terms of not just religion but also believing well beyond the evidence.
DL The truth is out there. It’s weird to think of the hero of the paranoid movie as a right-winger, because these mainstream movies have mostly been implicitly left. But the whole paranoid style of thought is historically right-wing. And then I’m like… how do I make this movie?
JNKW It’s being made for us. During this election, I kept saying we are living in a movie. As corny as it sounds, the craziest plot twists are on-demand these days. Self-actualizing. Trump is the master of these kinds of twists. It’s almost like his dreams come true. Remember when those Dallas police officers were sniped? It struck me as such an intense cosmic casting decision for the sniper to have been a black vet suffering from PTSD. It complicates the political reading in so many ways. Then he was killed by a bomb-sniffing robot that was turned into a bomb—acting out a role against its nature.
DL You can just imagine it’s one of these wonky old, looks-like-a-Dalek kind of things. Can’t you just imagine a bunch of overweight white cops frantically strapping this thing with explosives and being like, “Go on in, Robbie!”
JNKW The younger cop would be like, “No, this is unprecedented. We can’t use it to kill!” And the other one’s like—
DL ”Sometimes hard decisions need to be made.”
JNKW This scenario is, like, made to be made.
DL Right. But here’s the problem. It ended exactly the way you or I might script it. It ended with this completely abject accident, right? This weird, quickly modded robot lurches in and the sniper shoots at it. But it should end in an operatic scene with Alec Baldwin as a hostage negotiator talking through a loudspeaker about principles and then Chiwetel Ejiofor talking about principles, and then slow-motion explosions with Verdi music in the background. Actually, in my Parallax treatment, the subplot is similar because the guy who shoots the President is a black Muslim special-forces vet.
JNKW Oh really?
DL And everyone keeps saying, “There must be something behind this.” And then it turns out that, no, that’s just the cover story that got made up because he’s an assassin for hire. There’s no greater conspiracy. It’s just a backstory somebody wrote.
JNKW You’ve sold me.
DL Look for it in 2019.
The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
James N. Kienitz Wilkins is an artist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn. His work has screened at international film festivals, including the New York Film Festival. His docudrama feature, Public Hearing (2012), was shown at MoMA PS1 in 2013. He is premiering new work at this year’s CPH:DOX film festival and the Whitney Biennial.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.