Ryan McNamara’s familiarity with celebrity extends far beyond the name of his cat. With a new exhibition at Elizabeth Dee on the horizon, the artist is poised to show New York what he’s made of—and it’s not just papier-mâché.
Studio visit: Ryan McNamara, 2011. Produced by Elizabeth Dee and Tom Powel Imaging Inc. Video courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.
I met with Ryan McNamara in his Williamsburg studio, which is surprisingly quiet for being so close to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. His cat, Celebrity, a stocky black male with noticeable white whiskers, greets me by rubbing against my legs, then quickly retires to a couch to sleep for the rest of the two hours I’m there. McNamara is working on some découpaged papier-mâché sculptures, so his surfaces are covered in Xeroxed cutouts and painted 3-D shapes. The ceiling’s covering is not his work but that of his studio-mate’s, and looks like miniature paper rafters, decorated sparingly with one-of-a-kind paper snowflakes. The atmosphere is altogether charming, each detail seemingly significant. This makes sense when considering McNamara’s work, which is, in a world where spontaneity and chaos can stand in for performance art cred, pretty near flawless. We watch a mini-retrospective video produced for the Elizabeth Dee Channel, which is charming and informative. McNamara’s work doesn’t take itself too seriously, but its production quality is striking. This isn’t to say that the work is always clean—sometimes, it’s far from it.
Natasha Stagg What is subversive about performance art?
Ryan McNamara There is something about the fact that if a museum doesn’t like a painting, they can just not put it in, but with performance, if something happens that they don’t like, it’s a lot bigger of a spectacle to stop it then it is to let it go on. It’s still kind of sticky for museums. Even though there’s a full embrace of performance going on in museums, it’s still the actual nitty-gritty of getting it done that’s complicated. Every time I’ve done it, there’s still confusion over who I should work with—should it be the curatorial staff or the events staff? It hasn’t fully been figured out, which is exciting. There’s always gonna be that nervousness. This is an institution that is about preserving history and collecting work of its time, so it’s this thought out—overly, perhaps—place, but then they’re willing to throw their hands up and say “hope it goes well.” Museums are used to moving at a snail’s pace. Getting a show approved will take two years, and then all of a sudden they’re faced with this live moment. So it’s literally subversive because it subverts the power of the institution. At that moment, you can do anything you want, in a way.
NS Talk about the conversation between performance art and live music.
RM Performance art is almost a non-term, because it could be music. So, you can talk about music within performance art, and somewhat vice-versa, but not really. You can talk about David Bowie, but that is performance art utilizing music, in a way. Just because of the broadness of this term that everyone has a hard time describing (because it could be anything), it’s an endless topic. Is it anything that you put into a museum? Anything that you put into an art space? Does a stand-up comic become a performance artist if he’s in a museum? It’s the open-endedness of it that will constantly create conversation around it. There’s not a solid base to work off of. Music . . . is music.
NS But for a while, the conversation about music was not as definitive as it is now. Do you think that one day it will be easy to describe performance art?
RM Yeah, people like John Cage—at those moments, I’m sure there were plenty of people storming, This isn’t music. There’s a tendency in Art History, at least in the last hundred years, of reaching out and grabbing more and bringing it into the canon, so anything that’s on the outside can be on the inside. That tendency will, I’m sure, continue—colonizing the outside. A retro moment is more accepted in music than in contemporary art. If you make something that’s an homage to something, it has to be an investigation of it.
And people can say that it’s kind of stale now, these conversations on performance. I would say that eighty percent of performance panels are about one of three topics: Secondary audience, the market, and outsider status. If new conversations aren’t being made, then maybe we’ve already reached that stale point.
NS Do you feel pressure to make sure you are investigating something?
RM I think I can be reactionary. If there is a zeitgeist going on, I have a tendency to work against that or use that as a launching point. Something to rub up against and challenge. There are so many preconceived notions about what a performance is or what a gallery show is, even though these things are about exploring. At the end of the day, ninety percent of gallery experiences, you can guess what they will seem like. So it’s a fun challenge to use that as material to tweak. Because I go to galleries, and as a viewer, I think, Wouldn’t it be great if . . . ? Especially here, if you go to one of the gallery areas like in Chelsea, there’s this rhythm that’s created where you’re doing a loop, and going into a gallery and doing a loop, and at a certain point, your body and your brain are on automatic. So, one of the things I think about in gallery shows is how I can get the audience to break out of that passive rhythm.
NS And what are some of the ways you do that?
RM Well, I haven’t done much in galleries. They’re one context, and they have a certain set of limitations and conditions that are interesting, but if I were to do that four times a year, I wouldn’t know how to keep investigating them. I’m excited when I have weird opportunities to perform in places that might be seen as not ideal for viewing my work.
But, so, I did a five-day project, and it was right after I joined Elizabeth Dee Gallery. Elizabeth said she wanted me to do a project introducing me to the gallery audience, and so, being very literal, I did a show called Introducing Ryan McNamara, and I put up my whole life in videos, and I gave tours. The thing that was most interesting was how shocked people were just by me going up to them and saying, “Hi, my name’s Ryan.” There were many people who were like, “Oh, am I not allowed to be here?” They instantly went to feeling like they were in trouble because someone was talking to them in a gallery.
I mean: it’s not hard. Even though we talk about art as being this expansive thing, the way that it’s shown and experienced is really preconceived ninety percent of the time. I’m not saying I’m doing something completely new. There is precedence for this. But there is a way that a museum or a gallery operates, and breaking out of that is really rare and complicated, because these systems and the grooves that they’ve established are comfortable.
NS Do you see, historically, people breaking out of these systems and falling back into them, finding comfort again?
RM Yeah. Obviously, I like this system. I’ve chosen to be a part of it, and there is no attempt of breaking it down. I really like art, and I think it saved my life when I was a teenager. I’m almost honoring it by challenging it. I can do performances that are spectacles—meaning someone is watching them: I’m doing something, and you’re sitting there, seeing it. Which isn’t much of a challenge, because it’s even aligned with how we experience theater. Most of the time, I’m more interested in finding ways to challenge that audience-performer binary, but sometimes it’s just enjoyable to perform. Or have someone else perform, and direct them.
People expect artists, and maybe even more so performance people, to have this manifesto, instead of this making sense for this project, and this making sense for this project. To declare that any one project defines what I do . . . there are obviously threads that go throughout, but why would I limit myself to making it fit into what I’ve set out? I’m obviously a person who thinks about things in a certain way so there are lots of similarities . . . and sometimes they’re more traditional. Sometimes people sit around and watch people do stuff.
NS Do you live more theatrically because of what you do?
RM I don’t have a history of being a performer; this came out of wanting to be an artist. I went to undergrad for photography at Arizona State, and then went to grad school at Hunter. I like meeting people, and I think that’s in my work: it either involves meeting people, or I work with other performers and dancers, and then I get to meet them. That’s probably how I know half of my friends—through these projects I’ve worked on. For the pieces that I did for Louis Vuitton, I needed forty male dancers. I, at the time, didn’t know forty male dancers. Now, I know forty male dancers. And, so, I now go to their performances, and I like going to performances, that’s why I do this, but it affects my life in that I’m always going to performances.
In terms of feeling like I’m, you know, on stage . . . I like talking with people and engaging, but being in a space where I don’t know people, or being introduced, I’m not great at that. I’m actually kind of shy when it comes to those things. Performance almost acts as a way of meeting people—interesting people—and learning. I know so much more about dance technique than I did before doing all these projects, and am more interested in a wider variety of dance because of it. It has completely consumed my life, and my life is vastly different, now that I’m doing this full time.
NS When you consider the more mundane parts of your life, do you feel as present in them as when you’re performing?
RM I perform a lot, but not as much as a dancer. Working on performance in a visual art context, you’re expected to take on all roles. You’re the art director and the producer/manufacturer. So, if I look at the time spent on a project, ninety-five percent of it is not performing, it’s, you know, writing emails. The division between being on stage and not being on stage is also a little blurrier for me. For something like “Introducing Ryan McNamara,” I’m performing because my live body is in the art piece, but at the same time, I’m talking to one or two people as if I’m not in the art piece. Obviously, everything is going to be affected. Everything we do is going to be affected by the circumstances and situation. I’m just worried that my voice is going to go away, which it did, during that project. By day five, I could barely talk.
NS What do you give lectures on?
RM I just did a couple for U.S.C. and Cal Arts in October. Schools just ask me to talk about my work. Interesting conversations have come out of them. Actually, at Cal Arts, someone in the Q & A part said something about my “subversive practice,” and I said, “Well, I’ve already said that I think performance is subversive, but pointing me out as a subversive artist . . . I don’t know, maybe the term is bratty.”
When I say performance is subversive I mean the literal definition of subverting power, but describing something as subversive art, saying that it continues to be subversive beyond that moment and beyond that one power switch . . . I thought, What would that be? And I said, “We’re not leaving until I get three answers.”
The only thing that we came up with that made sense (and doesn’t sound like an interesting project) was something about hacking into the museum’s computers and getting information. I was like, “Yeah, I guess. Cool.” But I love these lectures. And I like to get the work stuff out of the way as soon as possible, because, you kind of get it. I don’t need you to know every detail of every performance that I did. You understand that most of the time it’s interactive and a lot of times it’s more realist than fantastical, blah, blah, blah. Let’s get that out of the way so we can have a real conversation, because those are few and far between. When you leave school, your friends are there to support you, and your gallery is there for a specific reason as well, and they’re a business. And there are reviews, but that’s not a conversation. I put something in a room, and then someone comes to write about it, and never the two shall meet. I like these opportunities where I get to revisit that ongoing conversation, and that’s the great thing about school. I mean: Does it make a lot of sense to go to art school? No. Odds are against you. But do I think it makes you a better person? Yeah.
A different but similar thing is I do these tours for [MoMA] P.S. 1. It’s kind of become part of my practice. What’s interesting about them is that these people aren’t arts professionals, because arts professionals aren’t asking for a tour. But they’re also a self-selecting group in that they have approached PS1 saying they want a tour. So they’re open-minded people, who don’t necessarily follow contemporary art. Most of the time it’s people who definitely do not. So it’s been a great opportunity for me to interact with people I don’t usually get a chance to talk to. I like having to answer those basic questions that we all seem to think we’re above, but are actually the fundamental questions that no one’s asking. It keeps me on my feet. Like, during the Ryan Trecartin show, they asked, “How is this art, and how is this not some crazy kids running around with video cameras? How is this not something I can see on YouTube?” And I’m like, “Well, you actually can see it on YouTube.”
NS Do you want to give lectures to non-art schools?
RM If they would have me. You know, something like two million people see the Whitney Biennial, and when we talk about it, we talk to people who probably saw the one before, and know these artists’ careers, and can put this into an art-historical context. That is not two million people. I’m so curious: Why? Why are they going to see it? I just can’t put myself into their brains. There’s a disconnect. There are thousands of people every day, going through that show. What is their experience versus the experience that art professionals are having? It’s a muddy ground. I don’t want to do an us-versus-them sort of thing, but I usually talk to people who follow contemporary art. So, who are the vast majority, who, I’m assuming, don’t follow it at the level that we do (because it’s our job to)? We’re supposedly making this stuff and putting it in a place that’s public, so aren’t we kind of curious?
NS Do you follow popular culture? Do you want to enter it?
RM There are grey areas all along. There is always this idea that there’s a group of people who know what they’re talking about, and then there’s everything else, when obviously there are so many levels. And also, what is pop culture at this point? How useful are these divisions? There are things that are popular, in that lots of people buy tickets to see them, and there are things that aren’t as popular. In terms of culture, I’m on the less popular side. Madonna’s on the more popular side.
I don’t think we need to get into this ridiculous situation where we have to say, “everything is everything.” We can put labels to things instead of having to say, “It’s a work of art that involves many moving bodies that are trained at doing that for a while,” when it’s a dance. But, these categories can be useful and they can be problematic, because the concerns of visual artists are within a bubble and the concerns of choreographers are in a different bubble. Like I said, contemporary art has this tendency to grab and reach, but selectively. So, I might grab dance because I think that’s interesting right now. We have this idea that we’ve taken this outsider thing and made it our own, and there can be something kind of creepy about that. Visual art often times places itself on the top of this hierarchy, and it’s because its arms can reach so far, because we can call anything visual art, and it can reach into other fields and bring them in. That’s very different from, say, two artists, one who’s a choreographer and one who’s a visual artist, discussing their similar concerns and what’s different. Last year, the Whitney Biennial had a lot of dance, but as a subject matter, whereas this year, I’m really excited because they have a lot of choreographers in it. It’s subject matter versus dialogue.
When I use a pop song in a piece of mine, it’s not an ironic gesture; I’m not saying, “Isn’t it amazing that I’m bringing this into high culture?” It’s probably that it’s at that time one of my favorite songs.
NS Talk about your upcoming performance.
RM It’s called Still. It’s a six-week show. The first three weeks are going to be production mode, in which I’ll be interacting with people that come into the gallery. This explanation is super-vague on purpose because there’s a tendency in performance to explain exactly what’s going to happen, and people read it and think, “Great, I don’t have to go.” Like, this choreographer John Jaspers doesn’t want performance stills sent out with the press release because then the person is waiting for that image to happen, and then there is a sort of before-and-after the image that happens in their heads. It’s the same as a good movie trailer, in that it should make you want to go, but not tell you exactly what happens. So, I’ve kind of gotten it down.
The first three weeks I’m really excited about because I’m going to be there every day, producing work with anyone who comes into the gallery. The second three weeks is going to be an exhibition of our collaborations. Also, I’ve been asking friends and performers to come in and help me in the first three weeks. During the second three weeks, there’s a performance series of their own work in the gallery.
NS How do you prepare?
RM I kind of . . . don’t. Preparation makes it scripted for me and not scripted for the other person. That’s kind of like an insult comic. They know exactly what they’re gonna do, they have their insults ready, and then there’s this poor person in the audience who’s like, “I haven’t been planning for this my whole life.” It’s so not fair. The playing field is so off. I’ve been thinking about this show for a long time; it’s in my hands, and I’m not pretending that it’s not, but I do want there to be interaction that isn’t staged.
NS What’s an experience that you definitely weren’t prepared for, coming from the audience?
RM (Pulls up a picture from a performance called II, in which he and another performer were buried in the ground up to their necks, singing duets into microphones.) This was for a benefit at Watermill, and there was this guy, and he was wasted, at like 6:15. He kicked this guy in the head, backed up to see what he had kicked, and then stepped on my head. That was hilarious.
(Pulls up another picture) This is a piece where I was asked to make a piece for Jack Smith’s first show at Gladstone Gallery [titled Thanks for Explaining Me, that exhibited May through June in 2011]. I was working off of a quote from when this composer and artist Tony Conrad visited Jack’s set. He said, “So, Jack, get this show on the road?” And Jack said, “This is the one time that actors get to live in reality, so I let them relish in it.” I love the idea that that is the reality, and that if this reality exists, it exists beyond Jack’s lifetime, because he’s dead.
I had an opening three days before the official opening and asked people to do what they needed to do to achieve that reality. What complicated it was that we were trying to achieve that reality in the most unlikely place, which is this big blue-chip gallery—which is sort of against everything Jack believed in.
The level that it reached was amazing. I wanted there to be this conflict between what I wanted people to do and this omnipresent, overbearing architecture, and people really got crazy and messed up the gallery. I knew that the show was going to be so pristine, and Jack, I mean, he even hated rectangles. He thought they were the shape of capitalism because they were so functional. And it was clean the next day. I left no mess because it was pristine again within hours. For the actual opening I played a video of this opening that everyone missed. There was a museum trustee, this fancy lady, and she went crazy. She was whipping people all night, and she took off her panties at one point. And we were doing it at Gladstone Gallery. We felt like such bad people.
That Sacred Band [Ryan McNamara Presents: The Sacred Band of Thebes aka In Memory of Robert Isabell aka Any Fag Could Do That, presented at Performa in 2009] thing I did with all those guys . . . I basically gave them instructions to create movement that incorporates both aggression and attraction. We never performed it all together until the night of. That’s another place where they were both performer and audience member. They had to watch each other in order to negotiate the space but also, it was all these gay dudes, sort of cruising each other.
There were these two guys that were really good friends and they came up to me afterwards and said, “We don’t know what happened, we just started making out, and we’ve never made out before.” Then, these two boyfriends basically decided to do Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” to each other, and they came up to me after and said, “I don’t know what happened, but he just started cutting my hair,” so he had all these bald spots, and those are moments that people went way beyond what I was expecting.
NS What else do you want us to know about your show?
RM It doesn’t work if people don’t come. My favorite audience member would come twice: once to participate, and once to see the exhibition. Or every day. Well, my favorite audience member would come at least five times, to see all the performances. Come from ten to six, regular gallery hours. Production part is from the 25th to the 17th. These sculptures are part of a related project. They’re costumes I’ve used in the past with pictures from past performances découpaged on them. That’s a little clue to what is going to happen in the gallery.
These are fun things to do. I feel very lucky that this gets to be my job.
Still runs from February 25 – April 7, 2012 at Elizabeth Dee gallery.
Natasha Stagg has an MFA and a BA in Creative Writing, from the University of Arizona and the University of Michigan, respectively. She writes for The Brooklyn Rail, Dis Magazine, and other publications.