Nayland Blake and Rachel Harrison share more than a friendship, a profession, and a Zodiac sign (they’re both Aquarians.) Harrison reports that they met seven summers ago while teaching in the sculpture department of the Bard MFA program. They struck up a friendship upon realizing that they both rewarded themselves after a grueling day of crits by going shopping to places they never visited in New York City—Walmart, Target, and, especially, Michael’s craft store in Kingston, NY, where Harrison says they “get all excited looking at grandma craft kits.” They take their critical thinking to the shops with them. Once, at Michael’s, Blake spotted a whitefeathered owl and said to Harrison, “You might need this for your work.” It’s lying around in her studio, waiting to appear in one of her pieces. The idea is one that harkens back to Schwitters and passes through Rauschenberg: de-contextualizing consumer goods and recycling discarded stuff is the basis of a daily sculptural engagement with the world of objects around us—the street is as much a studio as, well, the studio. Both artists mine the inherent theatricality of objects for display. If Harrison’s multi-sided figures contest the histrionics behind the ideals of heroism and beauty that figurative sculptures embody, Blake’s take on theatricality involves shifting genres and personas.
They met early this summer at the International Center of Photography for this conversation, and discussed what it means to be an artist in the age of hyperreproduction, how sculpture can challenge consensus, and their recent projects. That they’re both keen on innovation, independent-minded, and unpredictable might prove there’s something to astrology after all.
Rachel Harrison You were saying that you don’t see any issues in the art world today.
Nayland Blake Yeah, I really don’t see any.
RH Implying that artists used to have issues?
NB That there used to be a consensus of what ideas the community of artists was grappling with, but it broke down at least ten years ago. Do you hear friends talking about having to take a stand for or against something in their work?
RH Yes and no. But if we look back into previous decades we could find a time when art was an argument, and artists were arguing with each other. I feel it’s in the air not to piss anyone off too much. The art world is so big right now—there are many different pockets in which you can fall, so many different groups that form. Yet I don’t think that those groups come out of artistic practices.
NB Things are more organized around scenes than political positions; it’s about clusters of people socializing. Part of that diffusion is evidence of the virtualization of so much of the cultural discussion.
RH Everyone looks at art online now, and with the exception of video art that is made for YouTube, everything is mediated. For a long time art historians have written about art by looking at reproductions, and now the Internet takes this even further. I wasn’t able to travel to Munster to see Sculpture Projects, but I could find images of Mike Kelley’s petting zoo on Flickr soon after it opened. I’m not sure what I got from this except a superficial idea of the appearance of the work. I certainly didn’t know how it smelled. Someone told me the animals were going crazy from the sound. People assume they know an artwork from looking at pictures, but what do they really get from that?
NB That’s really weird when I think about your work. Your last show was so much about the fact that things didn’t resolve into one view at all. All your pieces kept me moving around them—there wasn’t one place to be able to stand and take it all in.
RH Right, and it was impossible to get a good installation shot!
NB Yeah, I was just looking at those installation shots today—
RH It’s the failure of this that’s interesting to me. I want people to be real with art, to be conscious and present with the object in order to experience it. Sometimes when I am looking at a painting I might space out and start thinking about something entirely unrelated. When the painting wakes me back up I see more of what’s there before me, and it puts me back into the present. This kind of experience is becoming increasingly important to me as these other aspects of virtualization, marketing, and branding explode. Maybe I’m starting to think that artworks need to unfold slowly over time in real space to contest the instantaneous distribution and circulation of images with which we’ve become so familiar.
NB I spend a fair amount of time in the queer and S&M worlds. A lot of the organizations in those worlds are starting to see their memberships decline. You think about New York City as a kind of sexual terrain; it used to be that there were at least six leather bars here, and any number of straight sex clubs, but now there’s only one of each. People talk about the ease with which someone can find their fetish connections online. It’s the same situation with younger artists.
RH What about the way society is changing in terms of tolerance? Certainly there must be more than six leather sites online . . . are there 6,000 maybe?
NB It’s very easy to tolerate something if it’s just typing. (laughter) Online life reduces all activities to typing and looking.
RH I’m thinking about the possibility of outward expression—or being an artist—as not being connected to geography. Being an artist in American culture right now is mainstream. When I was in high school in the ’80s, it wasn’t something I thought that I could do. I didn’t know any artists; I didn’t know that this was something I could do with my life. But being an artist has become just another job. There are so many professional programs and schools for people to be trained in all aspects of the field.
NB The difference is in the level of commitment, and also in the possibility of serendipity. On the libidinal end if you wanted to explore a less mainstream sexuality, you had to make a commitment to be in a physical space with other like-minded people. You were also likely to encounter an activity that you had never considered before, that you yourself hadn’t necessarily searched for. When you look at a show online, you’re only seeing what someone else decided is worth looking at. The opportunity for you to discover your own thing in the gallery next door or in the show itself, that thing that didn’t get reproduced, is severely curtailed.
RH That’s where it’s most problematic, especially in the case of sculpture. The photograph frames and distorts a three-dimensional object; just by choosing which side to document, it inhibits any possibility of knowing the thing. Since its invention, photography has altered the experience of art.
NB I think of your work as being about the push and pull between the image and the object.
RH That’s definitely true in terms of how I want people to experience things standing there with their body present with the object. But I’m also thinking increasingly about how the work is documented—that’s not something I’ve ever explored and I’m often struggling with it. I’m no Brancusi when it comes to photographing my work. He created something else out of his work through photography.
NB Lately, I’ve been making work that’s not being documented photographically.
RH Oh, wow. What kinds of things?
NB Well, I’ve been doing a fair amount of stuff on the street, and some performance things.
RH Actions or objects or both?
NB Both. There’s a set of objects and then a set of actions. Part of the point is that there aren’t any pictures of them. If they’re going to continue at all, they have to continue verbally. A couple of years ago, I started drawing on garbage. It comes out of graffiti; at the end of my high school days I was a very timid wannabe tagger. I never went very far. These new pieces of mine are a weird sort of reverse graffiti, because it’s drawing on stuff that’s already been discarded.
RH You mean garbage bags?
NB Stuff that I find on the street. I’ll put a drawing on it and leave a little message and put it back where I found it.
RH So you have no idea how many people are seeing these things?
RH That’s an exciting aspect of exhibiting work for me—it’s not the audience we know, it’s the audience we don’t know. That’s also one of the things I love about living in New York: noticing ephemeral things like the way wind blows garbage into a certain corner, or the randomness of a tree growing out of cement.
I wonder if we both prefer a more intimate experience when making what we make. I was drawn early on to your bunny pieces. In addition to being really funny, it felt like a personal way to express how an individual interacts with the world. One big bunny bouncing around the globe. In New York most big shows are all about market consensus, and major museums will only show artists whose marketability is proven. Your actions on the street and performances and objects can’t fall into any conventional institutional or commercial context.
NB Well, maybe. There always will be certain portions of any activity that fall within the purview of institutions. But a couple of years ago I came to a realization: If I’m interested in those artists’ ideas that have fallen outside of the institutional, my only option is to try to carry them forward in some way. It’s about letting art escape from the mechanisms of art history and consensus. There are going to be parts that are invisible to most people. There’s something exciting about that invisibility to me—we live in such an entirely overexposed time. You talk about market forces; I’ve seen an emerging alignment between critical discussion, market activity, and museological practice in the past couple of decades. It comes as no surprise to me that anything that functions in any one of those forums functions in all three of them. At this point, the mechanism is so streamlined that it’s hard to imagine what you could do that would escape that dynamic.
RH It’s usually the most obvious work that succeeds . . . It needs to be, it’s like Levi’s.
You can imagine why some artists say that their work must be about the art world’s relation to the market. This isn’t the work that interests me, because I don’t find the subject compelling. But this also attracts a different kind of critic, someone who finds the art market newsworthy, so these lines of contemporary discourse develop in tandem.
NB Well, in general we’re talking about those born in the early ’80s. What’s shifted in our lifetimes is the image of the artist’s life. So many people imagine there is nothing outside of the discourse around the market—they’ve never seen anything outside of it.
RH But artists are always looking back. We can talk about Manet.
NB Seeing student protests on the TV news as an eight-year-old gave me an understanding of that activity as a possibility. I had no idea what the political issues were, but the people protesting looked cool and I wanted to be like them. Seeing the art world of the ’70s in New York, as a teen, had the same effect: I could see possibilities for how I could live and was exposed to a set of values to emulate. That, to me, is the mindset that’s really shifted. If people’s exposure started in 1990, then they’re getting a different vision of how artists are supposed to conduct themselves. At a basic level, for instance, take the presumption that you’re going to make a living as an artist.
RH Well, I didn’t have that presumption when I moved to New York at all, because it was 1989.
NB And it wasn’t so pervasive; these days the presumption is—
RH About to change.
NB Well, yes. (laughter) And it’ll be really interesting for these people, because the presumption until very recently has been, “If you’re not making a living, you’re a chump. You’re doing something wrong.” Whereas, when I grew up it was, “If you are making a living, you’re suspect. You’re doing something wrong.”
RH When I started showing in the mid-’90s, nobody would even have this conversation. At the first Gramercy Art Fair (which later became the Armory) I hung hotel curtains on the wall. Nothing was for sale; I don’t even have a picture. But I want to go back to what you are making right now. Do you have a name for doing things on the street?
NB I was calling the drawings “gift tags” for a while, since they are gifts to the person who finds them.
RH I’m always interested in the work artists make for themselves. You want to create it because it’s in your head and you need to see it. I was at a gas station deli and I saw a can of iced green tea; at first glance, the guy whose picture was on it looked like Bush. What was also interesting about the can was that it had some writing in Chinese characters. This seemed incongruent with the picture—it was actually Arnold Palmer, the golf pro. So I made the sculpture Tiger Woods. I wanted to have the same initial level of involvement with the can, but since it was no longer at the gas station, this was not possible. My art is not representational, so I had to create an entirely different experience for the can to be present in the world.
What I like about your work is that I feel like you own up to your ideas, and you have a need—to use a very unfashionable word—to express them. The notion that an artist would have something to say and need to say it is certainly out of fashion right now. I know there are pills for those kinds of things too, but . . . . It seems that right now artists are supposed to connect a larger critical discourse to the work so it can be explained.
NB I tend to relate everything to my students. They’re uncomfortable without an issue. Heterosexual white men feel that they don’t have anything to make work about, since they don’t have an “issue” like race or sexuality. The implication is that the only valid issues are those coming out of oppression: no oppression equals no issue. It’s a very simplistic way by which students have learned to articulate a point of view in their work.
RH What about a broader idea of an issue, such as geometric abstraction?
NB I’d love to hear someone say they’re interested in geometric abstraction and actually talk about it in a complex way. It’s all sociologically based in a boring way. Anything that’s not issue-related gets termed “formalism.” People decide whether they’re for or against formalism—there’s some weird link between advocating formalism and an anti-intellectual defense of beauty that’s somehow beyond discussion.
RH But now we have a whole school of formalism rooted in the retro-modernist sensibility that, to my eyes, looks like nothing. It’s passing through a lot of doors because it says it knows what it is. Sometimes it even says it’s about nothing, and that seems to be okay too. In fact, the less there is to look at, the better. This seems like a petrified way to work. It worries me.
NB There’s no counterbalance. Those successful images travel so fast and so far that people are a bit at a loss as to how to stand in opposition to them. That’s the question that sends me back to my daily life. I talk about this in terms of teaching, because I believe that people have to be trained to develop some sort of counterweight to the prevailing debased consensus.
RH I might disagree with that: either you feel it or you don’t. It’s not something you can learn.
NB I think of it more like yoga—I say that as someone who doesn’t really train in any kind of meditative discipline. You can train your attention.
RH What about being interested in making art? You’ve got to have interest.
NB Interest . . . . That term has become devalued for me. I would so much rather hear about someone’s enthusiasm or their passion than their interest. To me, interest is low-level, non-confrontational.
RH While passion is high level . . . and enthusiasm kind of moderate. Anybody can be an enthusiast. (laughter) At least for me, making art is a difficult thing to do, and it continues to be, and that’s what keeps me interested, in the positive sense of the word, but certainly not enthusiastic.
NB Well, how about engaged?
RH Definitely—that goes back to consciousness. When I see good art, I know that the artist is there, in the artwork.
NB Being alert to that serendipitous thing on the street you alluded to before is impossible if you’re talking on your cellphone, or if you have your iPod on and you’re racing around. The best works of art teach you to read at a greater depth because they provide you with a quality of experience that is so vastly different from our normal buzz-around, get-through-the-day thing. If we don’t argue for the value of that kind of experience, then, to me, there’s a kind of capitulation. My engagement with the object is about a quality of attention and a way to reveal my inner life to myself by externalizing it, by making it physical, or enacting it in some way.
RH A person can get better at reading the object, definitely, but what about feeling? Can you teach someone to put feeling into their work? I won’t call myself an expressionist and say that my work is all about feeling, but it is often about directing my thought process externally, because in my head the thoughts are going so fast. At what point can I see them? At what point can I have a conversation with forms and myself and the objects that I make that is without language?
NB Do you like to be surprised by your work?
RH I’m not sure I’d say surprised, but the work needs to crack me up in a way that is surprising. I want from it something I haven’t seen yet, and that is a total cliché, right? But there has to be a place where my engagement with the work goes further, gets richer. Do you want be surprised when you look at art?
NB It’s the reason why I keep going back to see Richard Foreman plays. Each play has at least one, if not many moments, where I’m completely confounded, and that’s pleasurable for me. And since my tendency is to make everything about sex, I have to say it’s the same thing for me sexually. People who are really good lays are the ones who continue to surprise you.
RH Tell me about how the wire wall pieces in your last show were about sex? I saw it in the drawings. (laughter) One of the things that was so intriguing and lovely for me as a viewer was the sense that sex was there, but it wasn’t being literalized. It had ambiguity.
NB The chains and wire pieces are very much about a moment-to-moment consciousness. They’re made in this touching-the-thing-and-fiddling-with-it, additive way. I hope that they provoke a method of reading where you have get up close to see them, and then when you do, you realize there’s something else that’s next to it, and you consider what the transition is from one area of it to another, and then to another. Again, they don’t look like much in reproduction. The Plexiglas pieces on the column were my attempts to make satisfying paintings. There’s a lot of puncturing and abrasion in them. I also like that in looking at them you catch glimpses of yourself, because of the reflection—but none of them easily resolve. I like the viewing to be a physical, instead of solely optical, experience, where your mind actually makes use of the art object. That’s been my goal in terms of having other people look at what I do: I’m totally excited by those points where someone can take something that I did and make use of it. That they can use it to think through some other part of their life is fascinating for me.
RH Someone could see it and think of something that you hadn’t thought of. I find that really satisfying. I don’t expect anyone to ever know what’s inside my head, so I want to allow for an experience in another direction.
NB So, let me ask, in the last show, the photographs in the Voyage of the Beagle series, which I sent a bunch of my students to look at—
RH (laughter) Oh, I’d love to hear about that.
NB Were they organized sequentially, one leading to the next? Was the idea that each followed on from the one before?
RH The order was very specific—I spent months arranging them into the finished sequence. Each one had to be in the position that it was so the piece would feel like one artwork, not just a series of photographs. When you say each “follows the next” do you mean in the way a tomato ripens and goes from green to red?
NB No, more that there’d be something in each photograph that suggested the next one in the sequence. But what I’m hearing you say is that that’s not the case, that they were sort of interconnected.
RH I hope it’s all very interconnected. It also works with what you might see out of the corner of your eye, many photos away. I was interested in the linear aspect of a photo frieze, in which narrative is implied, but also in the fact that you can’t see them all at once. That’s where memory comes in, from image to image sequentially, but also across the work as a whole. There is cross-referencing—with art, you don’t necessarily read from left to right.
NB The word that I would use for that is rhyming, visual rhyming. I sent my students to your show because, primarily, you tackled the question of how to take a photograph and make it into an object. And secondly, because you couldn’t stand in one spot and see the entire frieze, you had to experience it in motion, which made the experience temporal and also emphasized the physicality of the works. And it was so pleasurable. There were moments where I could sense your pleasure in finding the location for a particular image.
RH Turning the photo into the object interests me in terms of the time it takes to experience something three-dimensional. This project started very simply; the question was: What does sculpture look like? A sculpture could be a can in the supermarket or an Indian in front of a cigar store. It’s a loose definition, but one rooted in modern art. I carried a point-and-shoot camera with me for a year, to see what would happen. I was also interested in the limits of pedestrian digital photography, accepting what I would get with limited technical means and an automatic setting. There were very few cases where I set out to photograph something specific. I realized at some point that the series needed to be finished, but I didn’t have a New York City monument, which was one of the categories I wanted to cover. Through a Google search, I discovered the Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park. So that was a pilgrimage—I broke the rule.
NB This is intriguing to me because we started out talking about how there really aren’t any issues these days . . . . I’m thinking that you and I have come to a similar place. It used to be that when artists would delineate a procedure, that that was supposed to be enough to sustain their entire practice.
RH Can you give me an example?
NB Well, like when you described the way you took your point-and-shoot camera out for a year to see what would happen—
RH But the idea wasn’t very conceptual, it wasn’t about making an I’m-gonna-measure-every-corner-of-the-room kind of art.
NB Right. In any case, this also used to be called procedural art.
RH Yes, that’s important to clarify: procedural art is one branch of the tree.
NB What perhaps characterizes our generation is a willingness to adopt procedures, but not to remain wedded to a particular procedure as an ideological position. So procedures get taken up and down and moved between: this might constitute a different notion of identity. It’s a weird connection, but maybe this relates to a more performative idea of identity, as opposed to a proprietary one. Identity as a shifting way of doing as opposed to a thing that one has. I might be getting a little off the track here. As you were describing the process of making that piece, I felt a real affinity for it.
RH We’re both interested in things that are spontaneous and passionate and sometimes ephemeral, so you would understand why I couldn’t lock myself into a process that became repetitive. Even with that photo series, I was making it without realizing it. I wasn’t thinking it would grow into this thing. Too much procedure as an artist would make me feel constrained. That’s why I felt an affinity with your wire twists. The materials convey a direct involvement and immediacy, intuition combined with thinking. They communicate someone present and conscious. And in a very big way, with humble means, they are free.