Confusing, wrong, and sometimes okay – art without purity, but with ethics: Olga Koumoundouros and Geoff Tuck
January 25, 2013
Thanks for meeting with me on Tuesday, I’ve been curious about your Notorious Possession project, and our conversation has been helpful.
I left your studio with questions about appropriation and ownership in my mind, and the connectedness of these… are they states of being? States of mind? Or are they simply words? I don’t know.
I feel that ideas are a currency that is best shared. When people have free access to information more can be made of it. This design of free movement brings in new people, new agents, with each pass. I find in my work on the Internet a curious reciprocity: if, when I quote from another creator I give credit, and when possible link back to the source, it benefits me: rather than one site draining attention from the other, the audience of each site is increased. I am never happier than when I find my content quoted or grabbed in whole for use because virtually everyone links back. This effect leads me to try always to credit people, and to invite people to become involved. I find that simple generosities are usually returned.
Am I correct in supposing that one signifier of appropriation in art is the presence of history, of ownership, and authorship by a specific and usually a significant artist or institution? Found art, on the other hand, implies a vacancy of historical significance to the found object.
I’m thinking here of Sherrie Levine and her appropriated images from famous artists, and then of Duchamp’s bottle rack – which came from who knows where?
Too, there are artists who “find” things in their own lives and studios and use these as found art with the added mystique of the objects’ association with the artist.
With the above in mind, the house in the Notorious Possession project seems to fit into the third category, that of an object with assigned history relating to your interaction with it.
Except, things are a little more complicated than this, because there is another history present. The women who lived in the house and left it, and the furnishings they left behind, inspired you to investigate and then to occupy the circumstance of that empty house across the street.
Since the house has been dispensed with and sold, we have only the artifacts to discuss. Can one define those objects as found art? But this would require one to dismiss the histories, both yours and the former residence. If we place them in that special third category, we can only assign to the objects your own time with them.
And, since nothing here represents a pre-existing work of art, one cannot term your use of the furnishings in your own work as appropriation.
Is there a way to think about the sculptures you are making with the remnants of the Notorious Possession project that includes personal history?
The history of these now cast-off objects, while potentially personal, speaks to universal problems of security, indebtedness and mortality. You are allowing this history to remain, it is becoming less specific in your hands as you use the objects as support and medium for your art. It seems to me that you aren’t moving the gold house lock stock and barrel into the gallery for a show, rather you are making objects that can give viewers the larger intellectual and emotional experience you had because of the house.
Before we move on, I want to think about the word “exploit.” I have heard this word defined as “to make use of,” and most often it is given a negative connotation. But making use of something isn’t always bad.
I think it’s important to pay attention to the several histories of these objects, and more importantly, to give voice to each of the characters.
Which brings me to the film on Art Bound, and to Robbie Herbst’s essay.1 In the film the characters present themselves as though they are in a particularly well-directed play; as the author/artist/narrator you come across as sometimes culpable, sometimes naive, and often patient. The two women looking at the house in the beginning also have great personalities. Their presence really grounds the work. I find the characters of the police woman and of the land owner to be quite sympathetic as well. The officer’s manner is direct, she seems to quite fairly apply the law in the way that officers at a scene are able – meaning that she cannot interpret, she can only enforce the most apparent rule, in this case property ownership, and always with a mind to keeping the general peace.
I feel like I’ve delayed for a few days, and I want not to lose track. Perhaps if we begin here we can work back into our discussion and possibly enter some new territories.
I don’t think I asked any questions. I hope I left you room to speak!
January 31, 2013
Once again I find your sharing very generous and well considered. Thank you so much for your time on this. I’m so sorry that I keep getting pulled away from this writing, to deal with other writings and demands. I have another quiet moment now though.
Although I am still in the process of fabricating the work, our conversation is helping me put to words to the issues I’m grappling with here. I believe I am following your thoughts more or less on this.
Yes, I do feel open to the sharing of ideas, and believe that authorship is too diffuse to ascribe specific designation as you say. I met the animator Nina Paley this winter and we had an interesting conversation about intellectual property and problems with the idea of ownership when we go around with an image or idea in our head, in our thoughts. She asked how does it not become part of us too? How is it not ours, too? How can one claim financial rights, clear boundaries, righteous ownership and theft of that? This is utopic in a way until we look at what happens when the big corporate entities get involved and their flagrant control of people, information and ideas. Then the problem of this becomes material.
This line of thinking with regards to ideas I think I get. I think there is a difference between idea/authorship blurriness and image/idea appropriation. The blurriness happens because idea exchange is social. If we connect with one another we will communicate all sorts of things including ideas. We respond and internalize these ideas and that is when they become more diffuse. How can they not? It is not like we are footnoting every sentence and concept. It is different than an academic moment when we have the distance of the page or screen for us to make more concrete the moment of exchange and digestion. But even with those differences, it still remains ideas that lead to internal understanding and awareness. The merit to society is immense in information exchange.
And appropriated images are different. There are authorship questions but it involves recontextualization (which may provide its own claims of authorship).
With that said, this property that I inhabited was appropriated. It was an abandoned house and stuff inside was castoff and I have recontextualized that stuff. Those items communicate information from the story of my experience with them, which is understood by the art context. And they became interesting to me because of the story I constructed about the lives that owned them before. So this work has two narratives that give them meaning. And two actions that change them. I am working with found objects and exploiting the narrative associated with the objects from their life before me to produce another layer of content. (I’m using the word exploit deliberately here)
I am so pleased to read “The history of these now cast-off objects, while potentially personal, speaks to universal problems of security, indebtedness and mortality.” This presents a very compelling synopsis of their attraction to me, and why using this narrative of the women’s lives is worth possible exploitation. Getting to the understanding of their story, leads us to an understanding of these problems that are relatable to many of us. (From this personal specificity the work achieves something like universality.)
I’d like to point out that as agents we all exist in the same world: the two women who formerly lived in the house, me as a neighbor and as an artist, viewers of the video who may have felt inspired to offer support (or critique!) and any viewers of the gallery show I am working on. Each of our motives, self-serving and otherwise, have the transparency of human interactions. But, there is a power in this story which compels individuals beyond their understanding, a near conspiracy that truly exploits us all indiscriminately: this is that familiar ‘unseen hand’ of Adam Smith’s marketplace, as it has been digested, reformulated and shat out by Wall Street and by Washington.
January 31, 2013
I’ve been thinking more about our conversation. I don’t want to lose track. The question of ethics relating to your project came up in conversation with a friend. You and I spoke of this at our meeting and I want to make sure we cover these potentially discordant issues. My friend (Ari Marcantonio) expressed his (and my own) feelings well by putting forth that he “doesn’t know how to think about (his understanding of) your gold house project.” I appreciate his ambiguity, it feels honest. I am not sure you have a need to reconcile a state in which all our actions exist: To the apparent ‘problem’ of you critiquing the commodification of a thing as personal as a home by making objects that offer you, as maker, the opportunity of profit, I would say, “let her who is without sin…”
Marcantonio went on to theorize that you yourself might not have a seamless explanation / defense of your actions and motives with this piece. I love that!
Let’s keep this dialogue going.
Thinking of you,
January 31, 2013
Oh my goodness! How could you tell I am trying to reconcile so much here in the writing. I really welcome the opportunity to write and consider so much before the show. Up until lately, I haven’t had the need to reconcile the ethics. That is part of why I had to acknowledge this really isn’t social practice art. But it is art in the social realm. The politics were not strongly guiding me. The personal motives to stay afloat at all costs were very strong. This is the problem in that my projects up to this point have been largely politically motivated. The language of criticality was leading me. So there is a bit of a shift in my practice that I am catching up with.
I do not have anything seamless. Your friend is absolutely correct. This was one messy project! It is messy socially with my neighbors and ethically and as art. Rationalizations I thought were justified for months up until a day after being removed by the police, revealed themselves of having no validity. But how do I explain all the ways I convinced myself of their merit over time? Facts based on research I had interpreted were in the end wrong based on context shift. Or information I thought were facts told to me by others actually were false or just contradictory. I enjoy getting lost in the lofty space of ideas, I can delude myself easily too.
Thank you for sharing your latest thoughts. They are helping me to breathe a little bit.
More to come!
Yes, I challenged material property rights. That was indeed a transgression. But are material property rights really among the most sacred? I personally don’t think so.
February 1, 2013
(Subject line: Ethics – Take 3)
I realized this morning that I still didn’t nail my position with regards to ethics. Just a couple more thoughts…
My ethics are indeed dubious. They really are. I like pushing against boundaries and I sometimes transgress. The boundaries are chosen ethically. But they are based on my ethics, not necessarily socially accepted or expected ones. This puts me in a position that is slightly out of control. Because I cannot really ever fully know other people’s ethics. This is where some of the tone of surprise, righteousness, or naivete reside. I know social norms and law well enough to know when I’m transgressing. It’s just when, where and how the outside response comes I can’t know. Its not for me to control.
I do like squirrelly tactics of certain kinds of activism. See, this is where ethics come in, although I am not activist. I respect the tenacity and make-do juggling act of people who live with low income economies. I judge ethically various forms of malfeaseance towards property. There are certain kinds (of malfeasance) that the banks have done and are now repaying, albeit in tiny amounts, to folks that got foreclosed on with shoddy paperwork; and then there are people who are keeping afloat by sharing with family and friends a “good deal” on fancy jeans or iPods that fell off a truck somewhere. There is an inconsistency in the ethical voice for sure. This not knowing what to think is really the heart of it. It is squirrely, inconsistent, confusing, wrong and sometimes okay. There is no purity. But there are ethics.
February 6, 2013
I’d love to ask how this new project relates to the one I saw at REDCAT, and how/whether that wonderful and memorable Daily Doughnut performance informed your performative actions at the Gold House. Also, something about inverting the canvas roof reminds me of the inversion that happened to me when I climbed the stairs to mount your TERROR piece in Pasadena. (Terror. Monument to a town meeting, after Acconci, shown at the Armory Center for the Arts 2003 Sculpture Invitational.) I felt then that I was looking down on my own frightened state and feeling ashamed to be found out, so now, in your present plans for installation, the gold canvas will be looking down at me in my (sorry) state with its eyes of that very history you appropriate – mocking me, I think.
The subject of your staircase or banister piece came up in a conversation with Mario Correa recently – relating to the title of one of his paintings in The Muslins. I was not aware of your shared history! Crazy and neat. Remember I saw the banister when David and I visited Karen Lofgren a year of so ago?
How will the staircase exist in the show? How might it relate to the Gold House works? Will there be a clear distinction? Will the projects be presented as related, dependent, or…?
February 9, 2013
To answer your questions:
I think the objects that were cast or shrouded in Demand Management became symbols. Their specific narratives were mute. And all together those objects made a form that displaced them a bit with movement and space. The economic references there were also from statistics gleaned from bureaucratic sources. The struggle depicted there was less connected to the intimacy of people’s lives. That was why the performance “Daily Doughnut” worked so well – because the performers’ idiosyncratic movements and interpretations and narratives added the needed human intimacy and corporeality to the spatial context established by the installation.
As for the issue of profiting myself from the goods taken from the gold house: I have no qualms. All of the objects have permission and authorization from the owners prior to being trashed out into the dumpster. If anything, I saved them a tiny bit of weight cost when the load was delivered to the landfill. Am I profiting from people’s miserable story? Names have been changed or redacted. As for including the new owners that wanted money from me for damages in my book, my lawyer advised me not to contact them, no matter how well intentioned or kind the approach. They were quite touchy and interpreted all gestures and words as harassment and an opportunity to pursue compensation for injury again. I decided to listen to my attorney, respect our differences and stay away.
February 11, 2013
Hello again Olga. I’m sorry, I know we both thought we were done, but my mind keeps racing. Just a few more things, I promise (-:
Mentioning your Daily Doughnut performance caused me to look up my own writing about Demand Management and recall my experience with your performance, which I took to be quite musical and even theatrical:
“…scattered on the floor, getting kicked by people entering, were scissors – utilitarian and threatening tools. Olga moved through the space with the performers, keeping time with an oversize clock on her wrist, giving direction, and showing concern and care that her directions be followed, and for her cast as they went about their business of making noise and chaos and, ultimately, music. The performance was tender and brutal and matter of fact, like life. She brought to mind a character from a hybrid of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man: the artist was 1/2 Huckster, 1/2 Magician and completely Just Doing Business, Thank You. As their work was completed the cast returned to sleep on the floor and Olga slipped out the door.” (Notes on Looking FOCA email newsletter, August 27, 2009 (no longer online))
I think it’s okay for me to acknowledge that at the time I cried when that closing moment of silence came – your performance, which all along had been rooted in everyday actions, had finally become utterly enigmatic and profound to me: the work that we all do, when separated from any result, looks absurd and, in such repetition as your actors were doing, futile. The release of exhaustion hit just the correct note, in that gallery space at REDCAT, filled as you had it with collaged appliances and consumer artifacts and evidence of heartless statistics.
This is where theater comes in, and I think theater returns in my assessment of the film on Art Bound. Truly, that feels like a one act Brecht/Weill operetta – with townspeople, jaded/earnest artistes, a Capitalist and a Police. But that drama’s connection to you and to the house and also to the artwork that has resulted from your interaction with it allows everyone to fall out. Having exhausted their expected stereotype roles, a complexity is allowed each character. As you, Olga the artist, become less pure, so do your artworks and the characters in your drama. (We viewers too, by the way.) And clearly it is your drama: Events unrolled, as they did all over the country. The house sat. People moved in their daily routines through the neighborhood. And then you inserted your self. You entered the house and you opened it – this story, this place of making art – up to your subjectivity. This is like some kind of an original claim, like in law if “possession is nine tenths of the law” (as we as kids would chant to torment our friends when we grabbed their stuff) then intention, and in this case artistic intention, can also be that powerful.
This might be where I find a consistency in your work, in your willingness to problematize your own role and relationship. You do the same to me as the viewer, but this is more common for art to do.
We haven’t mentioned this much, but your ass work is embarrassing and it does something troublesome: it shows a woman doing funky (one original meaning of which is “smelly”), embarrassing things. In a 2007 interview2 Todd Bourret brought up Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley as relating to this work of yours, and in that interview you also mentioned Mary Kelly. The Mary Kelly reference was something you were just coming into, and I wonder where you are with that now? The two bad boys (one now deceased) are lionized for their poop play. But it’s different for a woman, isn’t it? (By the way, Bourret’s is an amazing interview!!! I’ve recommended it before and I do so again. The talk of Oldenberg is so wonderful!)
Olga, I also want to bring the topic of your objects into our dialogue. You know that I admire your aesthetic sense as well as the conceptual integrity of your work, your objects; saying this, I do not want to bring up the notion of Olga Koumoundouros as an “artist’s artist” as a way to talk about your work. Instead, I think it’s appropriate to talk about your work as problematic due to the uncomfortable nature of/materials that you delve into in relation to you as a woman. We’ve already discussed the work in terms of your critique of Capitalist politics, as well as the challenge you present to contemporary social norms (see below) – I think this challenge to expectations changes the public conversation a bit and allows your objects to do their own job of persuading the audience. And Olga, I get the feeling that the objects you are making for this show will be very persuasive, indeed.
In totally unrelated writing on Lena Dunham’s television show “Girls”, Emily Nussbaum (in the New Yorker) makes the case that women who make work about “embarrassing” subjects are criticized and often sidelined by the market, Dunham’s tv show being a recent example (except for the bit about being “sidelined by the market” since Dunham’s show is greatly rewarded). Nussbaum observes that the criticisms of Dunham’s show derive not so much from objections to the show, than to the fact that these are women behaving stupidly and selfishly. Not to defend as laudable anything about the behavior of Dunham’s characters – quite the contrary, they are callow and entitled and trite like any other such characters – simply that because these characters who are being shallow and trite are women, women who are not striving to be “better,” and this brings them under scrutiny and earns Dunham approbation.
I take this to mean that men can play with shit and women can’t. Which is weird, for isn’t the quote about shit being “our first gift” originally stated as “…the first gift that she gives…”? Or at least stated this way was my first exposure to the quote – I think from Freud? Hence, my questions about your “ass work”.
Does this seem like a productive way to approach your work?
Is it too late to bring this all up? Do you find it pertinent at all?
February 13, 2013
I just finished reading your conversation with Mario. I feel so fortunate that our interviews were so close together and you saw the connections in our work as of late. Mario and I were studio mates at CalArts our first year there and I’ve got lots of regard and care for him and his work.
And its lovely that you liked the dialogue with Todd Bourrett. He is a colleague and friend from that same time and I always had great conversations with him about art.
Don’t worry …. I just get overwhelmed with lots on my plate. so I had to take a little breather from writing. I look forward to talking about the supposed “embarrassing asswork” a bit but perhaps in the next day or so…. so much to do.
February 17, 2013
“I chose to depict ass because it is a gender neutral “private part” or erotic zone; everyone uses one daily both young and old, male and female. It’s a site for comings and goings: stimulation, elimination, entry, holding and release. The muscle of the buttocks is large and holds gravity and in turn can easily bring us down to earth…. literally “fall on my ass”. It has slapstick humor and pathos. I’m interested in ideas of “em-bar(e)-ass-ment”, “ass backwards” or “showing ones ass” and the equalizing cultural shame associated with that reveal.” This is from a text I wrote a year or so ago about the work you are referencing.
But back to Marx and Feminism for a minute, I have gleaned much from Mary Kelly’s book Imaging Desire and her discussions of her great work Post-partum Document. From here I was led to Sandor Ferenczi’s essay “The Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money”. I became interested in the equation of money with filth/scat and the body. Pre-capitalist exchange of money was sticky and smelly held on tight with unkempt hands. Coins and papers moist and traded and collected. Now we have global transactions without the overt bodily yet equally dirty. Meanwhile women, according to Freud, are sterotypically anal retentive because they aren’t encouraged to enjoy the pleasure and release of crapping. Ironically they are the closest to shit and aculturated to be obsessed with removing and cleaning it up. It is the women who have their noses in it scrubbing the bathroom floor in their compulsion to remove it. Yet they simultaneously don’t collect the copro-symbols, i.e.: money, objects of material currency in the way men do. They pursue accumulation of sentimentally driven objects…. usually without monetary value. This is what is so brilliant about Mary Kelly’s shit stained nappies, they are presented with value. Actually, Paul Chan’s video “35,000 yrs of civilization after Henry Darger” with the little girls shitting gold piles and entering into a capitalist frenzy touches lightly on this, too.
So I asked myself what would a female subject with a libidinous drive towards social power and economic stead look like without the kids or vagina and of course the cock? Is there a female coprophilic space? Using the erotic zone that is unified among the genders, the ass, I’m trying to explore this language in art. When men do it they are being bad boys and we get a rise out of it. How brave, saying what we know to be true, but won’t say ourselves. When women take up this unapologetic libidinous bodily space and are depicted as acting without shame they are an “embarrassment”. We experience repulsion. I think this is where your “girls” reference comes in. I really don’t think I am in dialogue with that show but I can see where you were heading with that, and the review you linked to from the New Yorker makes convincing arguments. I wince at the pat totalizing privelege and whiteness represented. Many of us are a mix of economic and racial groups in the US. I too sensed the show’s discomfort with race and yet being an art school grad myself I do recognize those young female women and am glad it is there on tv. My own class background is far more complicated, and I identify more so with female slapstick comedy. Those women were “embarrassing” and shockingly bodily playing with conventions of decorum, shame and unabashed striving in their own gorgeous clumsy way. So much my lineage. In my family it was the women with the unapologetic bawdy bodies, mouths and finally, raw unabashed humor.
Olga Koumoundouros will present an exhibition of work relating to her Notorious Possession project, Possessed by Glint and Dreams, opening on March 2, 2013 at Susanne Vielmetter LA Projects: http://www.vielmetter.com/
1 Link to Robby Herbst essay: http://www.kcet.org/arts/artbound/counties/los-angeles/notorious-possession-olga-koumoundouros.html
2Link to Carol Cheh article in the LA Weekly: http://blogs.laweekly.com/arts/2012/10/a_notorious_possession_olga_koumoundouros.php
3 Interview with Todd Bourret: http://toddbourret.com/writing.html