The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
I first encountered Tom Burr’s work as a graduate student at Yale in 2008, where I was developing a spatial practice involving questions of site specificity, architecture, and difference. Excited by our overlapping interests, I decided to contact him with questions, and was taken by his sensitivity, intelligence, and willingness to engage in conversation. We corresponded, on and off, over e-mail for several years and decided to meet—IRL—for this interview.
Since the 1980s, Burr has produced an expansive body of sculptural work, collage, and writing that has illuminated alternative possibilities for considering the relationships between the built environment, subjectivity, and historical persona. His work intervenes in the traditionally tautological and masculinist language of Minimalism and Conceptual art, and reinscribes these art historical categories with new affects, desires, and melancholia. As Burr wrote in an e-mail from March 2009, “I’m continually retracting from and returning to the moment when certain hard forms or movements or gestures or attitudes become ‘soft.’” Through his practice, one can see how this sentiment is embodied in poetic yet critical material forms that are always site reflexive, familiar yet unsettling.
When Tom and I reconnected this past summer, we discussed his work’s shifting relationship to institutional critique, feminism, architecture, and representations of queerness as well as his new book of writings Anthology: Writings 1991–2015, published by the Frac Champagne-Ardenne and Sternberg Press this October.
Alan Ruiz Perhaps we can start with your new book of writings?
Tom Burr This book has been a lingering project of mine, and it’s finally coming to fruition. It’s been a daunting task—editing things I’ve written, reexamining them in a kind of retrospective fashion—but one that I’ve enjoyed at the same time.
AR What texts are you including?
TB Some of the earlier texts, beginning in 1991, were written for publications that coincided with shows, and many were actual components of artworks or exhibitions. I was thinking quite a bit about Robert Smithson’s writings then. That’s what the early park pieces came out of, such as An American Garden (1993), which dealt with The Ramble, a wild garden in Central Park, and Circa ’77 (1995) which focused in a similar way on the Platzspitz park in Zurich. I was considering the sites as both material and social spaces, but also as texts in a sense, spaces that are written through their use. Some time later I started to consider hybrid poetic texts as a way out of a descriptive sort of analysis toward another form of writing. Some of these were conceived of as performances, or as performed components of works, where the text would be read from within, and in relation to, a set of sculptural or architectural elements. This was the case, for instance, with a text from 2006 entitled “Anxiety.” It was written to be read by myself from within a stagelike artwork of the same name, occurring as part of a series of performances, talks, and exhibitions gathered together under the title of wieder und wider, a collaboration between mumok and the Tanzquartier Wien in Vienna. This approach to writing matched a more poetic space occupied by my various physical works during this time as well. And in some cases, maybe all, I’ve been interested in writing as a sort of equivalent to physical works, in texts as parallel structures. Most texts have been made public in one way or another, whether in an exhibition, a journal, or a catalogue.
AR It was interesting, in preparing for this interview, to look back not only on some of your writing and art work, but also on some of our earlier correspondence from 2009. I was particularly struck by your position on institutional critique then. How have your views changed?
TB What did I say then?
AR You suggested that institutional critique forced neutrality in relation to the subject, almost as though it were grounded in the negation of the author. I’m interested in how previous modes of institutional critique perhaps warranted a kind of invisibility in order to enact a critique. I don’t think this is the case anymore. I’m curious about how your feelings have changed since then, especially since the exhibition Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology at the Hammer Museum in 2014. The challenges an institution would face when mounting an exhibition focusing on institutional critique are self-evident, but there is value in presenting an archive of some of those procedures.
TB Well, when we were corresponding about these ideas a few years ago, I would have been referring to institutional critique as it was received by my generation, I suppose, before we expanded its capacity, in some sense. I was introduced to these ideas in the mid-’80s by Craig Owens, and also by Benjamin Buchloh, among others, whose views were quite distinct. Benjamin created a coherent genealogy of practice from Duchamp forward, while Craig, at least from my perspective, expanded the possibilities of institutional critique enormously through the inclusion of feminist positions, as well as the beginnings of a queer perspective. What was most compelling at that time was the introduction of a differentiated subject into the equation. It was really feminism that elongated, expanded, or ruptured institutional critique—that’s the point at which I became deeply interested and invested, because the possibility of a queer subject also became relevant within this discussion.
Several exhibitions that have just occurred or will be happening very soon, like the one at the Hammer, are grappling with this time period and this approach to art-making. mumok, Vienna will be mounting to expose, to show, to demonstrate, to inform, to offer, this October, focusing on a particular matrix of art practice that occurred in the late 1980s and into the ’90s that was very much a context for my own activities. And there are other shows being discussed as well, so it appears to be a time of both reexamination and reassessment. We’ll see how all of these exhibitions play out. But with regard to the show at the Hammer, specifically, I think it had an important premise, linking, quite rightly, the two generations that were so entangled: those who were engaging in strategies of appropriation, and my generation, which began to reengage with institutional frameworks. Most of my instructors during my student years in New York—at the School of Visual Arts and the Whitney Independent Study Program—came from the group that became known as appropriation artists, and they gave me certain conceptual tools to move my work forward.
The exhibition at the Hammer could have engaged its site more emphatically, and would have benefited by being grounded in work that reflected more on the specific context of that show, be it architectural or otherwise. Barbara Kruger’s stairwell piece aside, it’s funny to me that this important element was largely absent from the exhibition. I’ve always felt that the interface between architecture and artwork—be it a painting, sculptural work, or performance—is an essential component to how a critique within an institution could emerge. In this instance, I think the artworks were largely curated into place with little performative possibility. It’s precisely because exhibitions such as this one are serving an archival function that it’s crucial to represent some of the dynamics and effects that were developed between the works and their respective sites.
AR Beyond the more explicit example of an institution like the Hammer, I wonder if we could also think about art historical categories as an interesting site for institutional critique. For example, would you consider yourself a sculptor?
TB The issue of categories is a fraught one, but not one I completely shy away from. I might never call myself a sculptor, though I would talk about sculpture within my work, or of certain projects as sculpture. I wouldn’t call myself a writer necessarily either, not in any singular sense, though I do write. I’m interested in working within disciplines, within categories as contexts. Since my work comes out of site specificity, it has often engaged architecture, as well as sculptural traditions and iterations, and my own coordinates as material.
I have enacted several shifts along the way, most often quite consciously and in response to particular contexts I’ve found myself in. This has a lot to do with my sense of occupying the territory of others, using the form of earthworks, for instance, when I participated in particular recurring exhibitions that had this as a part of their legacy: for example, Sonsbeek 93. Or later consciously taking on the space of painting and the monochrome with the blanket works that I produced for a few years beginning in 2010. This was a response to the New York environment I was immersed in, and also reacting to, wanting to be discursive from within this environment. I was interested in putting on this form somehow, as an act of role-playing …It’s curious, I remember talking about this quite explicitly years earlier with my gallerist Colin de Land, discussing the notion of camouflage in relation to form, and saying that I would make a move slowly from one form to another as a methodology. This may explain why I’m hesitant with a single designation or category. Some people are happy calling me an artist, others a Conceptual or post-Conceptual artist, others say sculptor, and others use a string of modifiers. Someone suggested once that I was a performer and that I was simply performing these categories, which I like.
AR “Categories as contexts” is an interesting proposition, rather than categories as a kind of confinement. It makes me think of the plans for your piece at the sculpture park in Cologne. There’s an interesting tension between the phenomenological and semiological in that project. Does it relate to this notion?
TB Well, the site here is important given the park’s context. It was transformed from a private garden into a private sculpture park open to the public at given times. But more specifically, the location of my work within the park itself is resonant. I located the plot for the work midway between Dan Graham’s Greek Cross Labyrinth and Rosemarie Trockel’s L’Arc de Triomphe. My work, called No Access, operates along a sightline between these other works. It is made up of twenty-six mirrored screen structures positioned as a large cluster, or crowd of objects, with passages of access—forming room-like spaces within their configurations. So the individual units reflect each other while reflecting the surrounding parkscape and anyone who approaches, but only on the front side of each structure. The reverse side displays a large structural X as both supporting armature and also as an element of signage, with the X becoming a visual utterance or sign. It oscillates between the two, and is both simultaneously.
AR There’s also a very clear art-historical reference to the Claude glass. It’s intriguing, since painters used the black-mirror device to mediate nature, in a way, and sculpture parks in themselves are already mediated spaces.
TB Yes, the Claude glass was central to my ideas for the park project from the beginning. As you say, painters used Claude glasses as a way of framing scenes and contriving landscape paintings. It made it possible to see them differently—abstractly. The Cologne park feels very much modeled after the English parkscapes, which owe so much to landscape painting traditions.
I was very focused on the role that the Claude glass eventually had when it was taken up by the general public as a device to experience so-called wilderness, which was a newly discovered idea. It became a recreational fad to carry a small handheld black glass on excursions. So this evolution related even more precisely to the park setting and its publics.
AR And what about the title, No Access?
TB It emerged from a constellation of ideas, from this effect of mediation. One is drawn into the space by the surface and its reflective potential and promise, while also being denied any real inclusion, much like the surrounding office towers visible above the tree line. Ultimately the surfaces are quite cold and, of course, very dark, and somewhat alienating in their borrowing of a corporate architectural language. I was also considering how I myself might be found, or not found, in those slightly grainy steel surfaces, where I was being looked for, as the artist. The mirroring thwarts that by diverting the focus back onto the viewer in the most obvious of ways. This is where the structure’s dominant X starts to become formally expressive, and represents a form of refusal, or pushback.
AR Shifting to another public space, I was rereading your essay “Sleazy City: 42nd Street Structures and Some Qualities of Life,” which was originally published in October in 1998. It’s prophetic in how it crystallizes the Disneyfication of Times Square and the insidious policies of neoliberalism that would later restructure the city. Yet, on the other hand, it almost functions as an architectural typology of a marginalized space through its description of the voyeuristic interiors, reflective surfaces, sounds, and textures found in these X-rated movie houses—Foucault might have called these types of spaces “heterotopias.” I’m curious if you still think about marginalized spaces, which seemed recurrent in your early work?
TB I do, very much. It’s a hard question, though. It used to feel quite accurate to discuss subjectivity at the edges, in flux, and in terms of geographical and architectural spaces, visible and invisible constituencies and publics, and yes, very much in relation to Foucault’s heterotopias. I find current realities around space and the city, for instance, to be much more totalizing in terms of the effects of power, and consequently more complex to navigate. In the mid-’90s the effects of privatization on the cityscape were very distinct and concrete. What was happening in Times Square with the eradication of the sex industry could be pinpointed, it had boundaries. Its long history finally came to a head during Giuliani’s regime, and it played out fully in 1995—the precise time I mounted the exhibition 42nd Street Structures, which included the texts that would later become the essay you refer to. In contrast, today’s cityscape is perhaps more monolithic in terms of the effects of private interest; it is felt everywhere. Consequently, one route for me has been to develop ideas that are about certain kinds of linguistic spaces, as well as actual spaces. While one aspect of my practice is firmly grounded in some notion of the “literal,” where actual spaces and materials perform a role, in concert with that I’m also intrigued by a form of abstraction that comes about through language, and language as form. It’s almost a contradiction, I know, but “voice” can start to describe the transient nature of subjectivity—and shifting, unstable voices. I would say this is what the book of writings is about as well.
AR Right. Space, rather than a thing in itself, is always an information system produced by sociopolitical, economic, and, of course, material conditions. This also makes me think of James Meyer’s expanded notion of context reflexivity and his distinction between “literal” versus “functional” sites, which he articulated in his 2000 essay “The Functional Site; or, The Transformation of Site-Specificity.” Your work is often associated with Meyer’s idea of the functional site, in that it can’t be located in exactly one place—conceptually speaking—and maybe collapses several different sites, yet it often carries a literal, or absolute, spatial dimension to it. Is this dialectic something you still identify with?
TB My interaction with James, through American Fine Arts—which no longer exists, of course—had a clarifying effect on some of my ideas at the time. I’m going to insist on a dialectical relationship within my work, which is always ricocheting against architecture and between different literal spaces and literal physicalities and their less concrete dimensions. This is what I was attempting with regard to the abstraction I found in writing. Often a site for me is both a point of origin and one of departure; it means being grounded in a particular location with particular conditions, but seeing those conditions as having myriad points of reference and contingency. The project I did at Art Basel two years ago, Dressage, had this dialectic at its core, with the impetus for the work—a series of forms coming out of the six stages of dressage horse training—originating in the site, which was just outside former military horse barracks. But from there I wanted to expand the work’s resonances, and also to engage its other context, the Parcours section of the art fair. I wanted the two sites to overlap like filters, merging artists’ bodies and horses’ bodies, as well as the architecture that defines, contains, and distributes them.
AR So do you see this as a kind of materialist critique?
TB Material conditions matter in my work, as well as the context the work occupies—in many instances it becomes something of a subject. And subjectivity itself is one of the material conditions I think about. There are also productive emotional responses that I’ve learned to harness in certain ways to get the effects that I want, meaning that I’m aware of the power of certain gestures, in terms of form and also of subject and content. The blanket works, and the use of a diagonal fold within the fabric as a formal device, versus other options, is an example. The diagonal hits a different pitch, it’s more like a minor chord in that sense, and it can function to both impart the idea of emotion and to simultaneously invoke it.
I’m interested in being grounded in some notion of subjectivity, which is always, at the same time, impossible to me, or tenuous at best. And that is a political goal I would say—to consider subjectivity as unstable. But I think about those effects that produce or reveal subjectivity over time, and how they’re reproduced. A pointed example is the 42nd Street Structures project we discussed. I might never again address that work—or the conditions of that particular site—but its memory trace will remain within my other work. In that project, and in others before it, I positioned myself in relation to queer subjectivity and my “own” sexuality. I took a position, and that position then has become a lens through which all my subsequent work is experienced. I use this accumulation of information and expectation as a form of material in itself, knowing that I can, hypothetically, make a blank black form on the wall, for instance, and associations will be brought to it. I’ve learned to employ these associations. These strange accumulations interest me, and it’s always a matter of teasing them out and bringing them forward and putting them to work rather than blindly repeating them.
AR We seem to be hovering around the idea of queer space. Your work has been seen as “queering” certain art histories. This word is often carelessly used and maybe now carries a kind of currency, so I’m interested in what it is that makes your work, or a work of art, “queer.” I’m often frustrated by contemporary work that relies on erotic representations of the human figure to convey this idea, mainly because work of this type can be essentializing and seems to claim an easy kind of agency that I’m skeptical of. I’d like to think things are more complex than that.
José E. Muñoz, in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, proposed the idea that queerness was maybe not here yet, and was “an ontologically humble state, under a conceptual grid in which we don’t claim to always already know” what it is. I’m interested in this notion that maybe how a work behaves or performs is a marker of its queerness, rather than its representations.
TB I’ve thought about and responded to this for many years, it’s certainly been an ongoing dialogue for me. I’ve written about my work Deep Purple (2000) in similar terms, of its certain promiscuity, its opportunistically nomadic relation to site, and its own actions with regard to what I see as its role-playing. I’ve thought quite a lot about the performance and behavior of a work or exhibition as opposed to what something “shows,” and I think several of my writings in the book speak to this possibility. I’m in complete agreement with you about the unquestioned use of the verb queering; I find myself not truly believing its function and the ease with which it is employed, somehow.
When I was starting to form a path with my work, the male torso was accepted as synonymous with gay male identity or desire, and later, with the beginnings of an articulation of queer identity. I wanted to work away from this somehow, beyond the pictorial, which is why I focused on specific physical locations, spatial zones, and their power distributions, as a way of complicating that discourse. I did this also, as you say, through my reworking of the work of others, retooling existing artworks and methodologies.
AR Isabelle Graw’s observation—in Art and Subjecthood: The Return of the Human Figure in Semiocapitalism—about artworks assuming a kind of quasi-subjecthood is useful here, in terms of the biopolitical dimension of figuration. If affect and persona are commodities under present-day capitalism, the same might be desired of artworks. I’m thinking specifically of whether there exists a market desire for representational queer work predicated on its affective vitality or aliveness?
TB At certain historical moments the invisibility of specific subjectivities and desires produces the impulse to “picture” or “show” those disappeared positions, most easily represented, maybe, by images of bodies themselves. I understand that this can be an extremely important project. But, in its simplicity, it risks eclipsing a more complex set of conditions, a context. It also leads to relatively easy market consumption in some instances, though I’m not convinced this notion of “aliveness” can be reduced to figuration. I suppose it functions more broadly than that. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, if you wanted to talk about gay subjectivity and sexual identity, it tended to be through photography and imagery. It was a kind of shorthand for these political ideas. I believe that’s why the kind of fragmented, collage-based work I embarked on always seemed to get me where I wanted to go much more effectively. Because there was never just one image, and the images were always in relation to form, it allowed for a dialectic to emerge.
AR Yes, but I’m still curious to ask: Do you think that figuration is still a viable response to sociopolitical invisibility?
TB Well, it’s viable, yes. There are ways to consider this approach alongside something that I feel I’m doing, which is somewhat different. These methods or impulses can, and should, coexist. There are politically important instances where figuration might be desired. Certain legacies of feminism, as well as much work done in response to the AIDS crisis, speak to this—as just two possible places to look. There are many others, and many others yet to emerge that I can imagine. But more than this either/or, what interests me is the presence of a kind of self-reflection about one’s approach as well as a notion of investment, of being implicated in the work in as complex a way imaginable. In this sense, I’m increasingly curious about autobiographical impulses, of grafting that onto a critique of form or the skewing of form that I’ve been engaged in. I don’t mean “autobiographical” in any unfiltered pure state, but as a type of built problem or set of questions. The idea of figuration is a prescient one for me, as I find myself aiming toward a body of work where I may “figure” more conspicuously than I have before. I’ve always used the idea of myself as one material in a list. I’m considering this question quite a lot lately, and by no means rejecting it. It intrigues me as yet another form, or Other, to the formalism I’ve been consistently involved with.
AR For some time I’ve thought about the notion of radical formalism—though scholar and critic Soyoung Yoon advised me to call it “feminist formalism.” That is, a way of reconsidering form away from its historically apolitical associations toward a means of hacking or détournement. Juliane Rebentisch, for instance, has written similarly about this divide between formalism and what she calls “contentism.” Denying an aesthetic experience doesn’t automatically make something critical. In fact, we could even say that this type of criticality can become aestheticized. Do you see form as political?
TB I do, of course, and my dialogues with Juliane in the late ’90s around this were very important for me. She first came to my work through the piece Black Box, which was accompanied by my first wallboard piece Black Bulletin Board. In this configuration I was grappling with the schism you refer to, with the bulletin board becoming sort of the excess baggage of content, a surplus to the somewhat feigned formalism of the sculptural component. So, yes, I do see form as political and I’m always wary of form becoming perceived as pure, or disengaged, detached—
TB Yes. And autonomous. I was and am drawn to architecture and architectural relationships and spaces that start to describe publics and ideas, rather than the single tyranny of any one image or object.
AR What about your interest in style and fashion. I’m thinking of your works that include articles of clothing, I’m assuming your own. Would you say that fashion or style play an affective role in your work?
TB There are a few routes into this. Let’s leave style aside for now. Fashion, for me, is most interestingly a by-product of the clothing industry, taking various forms: of necessity, role-playing, and camouflage. For a period of time Helmut Lang “figured” in my work as the name on the label of several of my cast-off clothes, as a sort of surrogate figure, a time-period’s stamp, personal in a sense, but more significantly, in a public sense. Specificity, and timeliness as opposed to timelessness. I’m more concerned with things slipping out of fashion. This was one of the thematics behind my 2007 exhibition Moods, at Secession in Vienna, where articles of my own clothes, mostly Helmut Lang and mostly from ten years earlier (from mid-’90s) were grafted onto particular works. There was a confluence, or an overdetermination with this choice as well, Secession being where Helmut Lang had his first fashion show as a young designer. The notion of affect, as it pertained to the function of a work of art, was very much in discussion at that time—particularly in Europe, where I had been primarily showing during those years. Then there is the murkier terrain of style as it relates to form. Formalism and style bang up against each other from time to time.
What do you think about style, Alan?
AR Well, I see formalism, historically, as a project of purity and universality, entirely separate from style. Maybe style is interesting indexically, in that it can embody an idiosyncratic and political specificity in relation to the moment something is authored. Yet, at the same time, it can become so expressive that we return to the problem of individualism we were talking about earlier.
TB In relation to this problem of individualism, it’s interesting to consider the historical idea of style as a stamp of subjectivity, the invocation of “personal style” and the myth of distinction and self-determination that this implies. Which, to degrees, we believe at times and are deeply implicated in, especially in this particular profession. The works of mine that most pointedly engaged fashion—through elements of clothes, etcetera, which were usually but not always my own—were often also the same ones that questioned my own presence as well as the relevance of an artist’s biography to the work, and vice versa.
I started to consider my proper name as a symptom: as a clue or decoy, your choice. I’m thinking here about pieces with titles like Thomas the Impostor, Who Tommaso Was, Burrville, and others, works that slipped between “me” and “not me.” It’s important to affirm subjectivities, but also to acknowledge the forces that build them. By implicating myself into this dilemma, I want to acknowledge that I’m being built, in some sense, by the conditions and the expectations that surround me.
AR It’s interesting how you seem to complicate this through appropriation, by juxtaposing disparate historical subjects or sites—each with their own style, be it individual or historical—and crystallize them through collage. Black Bulletin Board (1998) collapses images of Tony Smith sculptures, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, and black-clad bar stools, highlighting their fascist aesthetics and their collective performance of masculinity. Also Brutalist Bulletin Board(2001), which juxtaposes Jim Morrison and Paul Rudolph with their ties to New Haven, where you were born too. Perhaps these two works represent the “impression” of your subjectivity that you were just referring to.
TB Maybe this links back to the issue of figuration for me, where it’s not figuration per se that I might object to, but to the problems of using images to reinforce unified, singular subjectivities and universalizing views. I’ve always attempted to counter one image or figure with others, to overlap conditions and realities, or to fracture any persona I might use with as many fissures as I can in order to produce something that is more complex and less complacent. I want to create something that performs its own divergent questions.
AR Multiple perspectives that yield multiple subjectivities …
TB Yes. When we begin to understand these gestures in their social and political dimensions, then maybe it becomes impossible to trust any unified answer or form or angle. A multi-angled or faceted approach to any situation seems to describe things better for me.
Alan Ruiz is a visual artist whose work explores architectural space as a perceptual and political medium. He teaches at Pratt Institute and The New School’s Eugene Lang College, and is this semester’s artist in residence with the Youth Insights Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.