Native Strategies and Notes on Looking: A conversation

June 13, 2013

Prumsodun Ok,  White Chalk Horse, Native Strategies #2 for The Next Steps, The Sweat Spot, 2012, pictured Prumsodun Ok

Prumsodun Ok,
White Chalk Horse,
Native Strategies #2
for The Next Steps,
The Sweat Spot, 2012, pictured Prumsodun Ok

Geoff Tuck:

I’d like to find a way to begin our conversation. I often find myself in a state of wondering when these projects are inaugurated with a person… It seems that no matter how much homework I’ve done on a subject – no matter how much preparation we’ve done – I begin in doubt: that I may leave something out, that we offer too little background for people to understand, that I’m insufficient to the task of exploring our subject.

Brian Getnick:

I totally understand that feeling. I find the beginning of any writing project unnerving in that I am afraid that I’ll never cover all the bases. Ultimately I think writing is about surrendering to the fact that you will never cover all the bases, and you will never engage all of the relevant discourse that floats around your subject, nor be as good as the writers you adore and who crowd your head. In the end, you have to just start something, anything.

Geoff:

I’m curious about your approach to defining the terms of Native Strategies. You are offering the experience of performance to people, you are engaging artists and writers to consider the practices you showcase in a series of publications, and – which I find terribly important – you are seeking to include performance practices that are not immediately recognizable as art, or that are not considered by the gatekeepers of the art community(ies) as art. Such practices range from queer theater to ethnic dance to…well – you tell me. At dinner we talked about a few territories you’d like to explore in the future.

Brian:

Native Strategies is looking at what the dominant ways of working are in Los Angeles at this moment. My feeling is that if a performance methodology is being tried out by enough communities across the LA terrain then it’s worth looking at.

It’s funny when you mention gatekeepers. I don’t know what a gatekeeper is in LA. The communities that make performance are typically doing it for audiences that can access the work in venues that are gate-less.

I think if performance artists feels excluded from working in institutions and prestigious venues they should ask, what is it exactly that those places are offering beside prestige? Does that space, that audience, that economic context inspire you to push your work further or try something new? My feeling is that there is no incentive to make performance work in LA other than to experiment wildly and work collaboratively. What I would like to see LACMA, MOCA, and the Hammer do is to provide a laboratory for studying performance art made in Los Angeles by providing residency to artists in the same venue where they will produce a public work. I would like them to use their sizable resources to critically connect the work of these artists to a larger discourse and stand by it in the global arena. By this I mean these places have an opportunity (and for how many more years?) to capitalize on a singular moment of production in LA. As it stands, performers have brief flirtations with our museums. The best they have done so far is to partner with smaller, more nimble organizations like Machine Projects to bring in a hint of what’s being developed on the ground. Even so, the current model is you make an interesting performance for a museum one day and the next you make work for your friends in the LA river. Thank god for the LA River.

Pictured From upper left to right:  Amanda Yates, Meg Wolfe and Anna B. Scott, Prumsodun Ok, Nacho Nava, Nick Duran and Jmy James Kidd, Amanda Furches, Jahanna Blunt, Rafa Esparza and Nathan Bockelman

Pictured From upper left to right:
Amanda Yates, Meg Wolfe and Anna B. Scott, Prumsodun Ok, Nacho Nava, Nick Duran and Jmy James Kidd, Amanda Furches, Jahanna Blunt, Rafa Esparza and Nathan Bockelman

Geoff:

I find that you are expanding the limits of art, rather than contextualizing these different ways of working into art.

Brian:

I would say that while I hope not to kidnap or colonize a performance method which functions better without the “art” label, I am inviting performers to consider what they do as being seen as art. I think of performance art as an arena of invitation. It’s there for anyone who wants a particular critical scrutiny applied to their ideas that is often lacking in the venues / fields performers come from. Many dancers, for instance, make the move to present dance within visual art venues because on the theater’s stage their work is read basically on how well their exceptional bodies demonstrate a predetermined score or how their work answers back to schools of dance thought and philosophy. These performers are looking for an arena where their ideas are seen, where they can go against whatever dance trend they want, and where the audience is perhaps naive about how to read dance but highly skilled in reading metaphors, references, politics and psychological ramifications. Perhaps conversely that’s re-energizing to the field of dance. I know this happens with experimental theater directors who try out things they feel unable to try on the stage and then return to the theater refreshed with ideas and the knowledge of how to go forward.

Geoff:

I am particularly impatient with the art world’s exclusionary attitudes towards the new: new ideas, different people, new experiences; these are all viewed with skepticism by an increasingly academic culture.

Brian:

My experience of working in LA is that artists are unusually adept at generating their own structures of value and criticality. Native Strategies is one of many projects launched by artists to achieve discourse. Notes on Looking, Carol Cheh’s Another Righteous Transfer, Night Gallery’s Night Paper, Public Fiction’s journal, the innumerable publications my collaborator Tanya Rubbak works on, were all started around the same time, 2011.  Isn’t that strange Geoff?

I don’t see the academic culture as being oppositional to what we’re trying to accomplish because, to a degree, I am a product of the academic culture. The difference is that I entered LA’s performance culture through the queer underground night life that was happening around Ashland Mines and Wu Ingrid Tsang’s party “Wildness” back in 2007 and Nacho Nava’s ongoing dance party and performance venue “Mustache Mondays.” I eventually found my way to working with galleries, museums and theaters, but it was in the heterogeneous, pleasurable, environments of those parties that I discovered why I wanted to stay in LA. Namely, it was because I was seeing performance forms and content being developed in those non-disciplinary spaces that was reflected also in the work coming out of our universities.  The difference was, the work made in the clubs, often by artists with no formal art education, was not a part of the discourse about LA, of what was being said LA was. I am one of a number of curators who believe that to be outrageous. If you study what’s occurring in both realms you see that the forms and concepts those artists are developing are even more important than if they had cropped up in just one of those places. LA’s total output shows you a Zeitgeist.

Geoff:

Regarding the significance of 2011 in the creative lives of a number of critically oriented Angelenos/Angelenas, I want to address two points that seem to be at issue in your question: Was 2011 a watershed year for critical publications, and is there something new in the world of critical discourse in Los Angeles? Well, yes, 2011 was a rich time. The recession may have had something to do with this; dependable sources of funding were drying up, and people were forced to think creatively. Possibly the disjuncture between the emergent internet scene and the established but declining paper publications created a space that begged to be filled, and savvy individuals exploited it. New graphic design techniques that were informed by web culture were applied to Night Papers and Public Fiction. At Notes on Looking I began to attempt on the web what older journals and reviews, such as the Partisan Review, had done in the early and mid-twentieth century: a personality-based intellectual journal, but friendly, and addressing my own concerns. So yes, the possibility for this generative and experimental hybridization was revivified in 2011.

Brian:

I see that and I should mention that Native Strategies arrived more than 10 years after High Performance Magazine ended in 1997.

Geoff:

But I think I see this discourse as more of a continuum; after all, Notes on Looking began in 2007 and then went online in 2009. For Your Art began around the same time, and other critical publications have launched since that time, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Art Book Review, and just this year VIA. In the mid-2000s there was a lot of talk about the lack of discourse in our city, and people then bemoaned the lack of support for art journals. I attended a number of symposia on these subjects, and I saw that people who were trying to replicate old-style magazines, to print and publish regularly and to be supported by advertising and by grants, were not flourishing. They all seemed to be asking for permission and for support. The publications that succeeded, online and on paper, seemed more DIY to me, and they have found ways suitable to the times to offer critical conversation. The desire for discourse is alive and well, and the tools to achieve it are understood to be widely available in a digital, DIY environment.

Brian:

The pathway that Native Strategies is forging for itself as a printed object is being largely determined by Tanya Rubbak who joined me in 2012 to work on The Next Steps, our dance issue. Our relationship as collaborators has always been about thinking of the form and content as intersecting, colliding, and interpenetrating one another. Native Strategies is becoming more and more an experiment in how the process of the printed object’s creation and the event of its physical appearance in the world becomes integral in understanding the performance modes we’re researching. I like this quote from Tanya a lot.

“Generally I think the most interesting collaborations are those where design can play the role of interpretation, rather than translation. Even more interesting is when it becomes a supplement that adds another layer of meaning, either formally or by creating a parallel dialogue. We understand or absorb things via metaphor, myth, analogy, and story. When these basic commutative strategies are played with and pushed towards fiction, stretched into spinoffs, meta dialogues, and side stories, they open up endless possibilities for making memorable and exciting ephemeral objects and connecting with people in deeper and more personal ways.”

Geoff:

I like this thought of employing a universe of communication tools. Tanya seems to suggest that she considers her ultimate viewers to also be collaborators, and that her work allows them to discover messages in their own fashion. “The role of interpretation” vs “direct translation” is fascinating. Direct translation claims a certainty of knowledge that I find dubious, interpretation allows for subjectivity in all parties. The message is not lost, and perhaps it becomes enhanced.Rafa Esparza,  First Son (in law) of a Nation,  Native Strategies #3 Rituals and Congregations,  Human Resources LA, pictured Rafa Esparza, 2013

Rafa Esparza,
First Son (in law) of a Nation,
Native Strategies #3
Rituals and Congregations,
Human Resources LA,
pictured Rafa Esparza,
2013

June 30, 2013

Brian:

Geoff, the gist of the questions I have for you is about an arc that I see being made between your project / blog Notes on Looking and the residencies you’ve been hosting with your partner David in Parkfield. My impression is that Notes feels like this massive gathering tool, the ground you’ve covered in the last (fill in the number) years is amazing. You are one of the few Angelenos who tries to see everything from the west to the east of our city, and over the years I see many hints of a synthesis in your blog, sentences cropping up that seem to be grasping for a whole picture.

Could you speak to the original feeling and intention behind notes and talk about how it has changed over the years?

Geoff:

I started Notes to document art that I thought was not being paid proper attention, and to do it in a way that would allow me to draw on my history of looking in Los Angeles. The development of the site and the emails has been largely organic and intuitive. It began in an epistolary manner, with emails to a group of acquaintances, and the structure of correspondence is still one of my favorite ways to write. I am usually writing to the artist, sharing with her or with him the things I see and what it makes me think and feel. I am also writing to an imagined enthusiastic friend who may be far away, but who is interested and may visit the city and some of the places I mention. I don’t try to see everything anymore, it’s not who I am and it’s not who Los Angeles is. That said, now as in the past, I try to let chance as well as purpose direct my attention. Often I get very lucky when chance intervenes.

Your mention of a possible synthesis interests me. I think what you are noticing is my own developing world view, or inquiry, or set of interests. I do not think a synthesis, a coherent vision of Los Angeles is possible; there are too many disparate artists working on their visions. I would not presume to sum it up. That’s for art history, which I trust only as a retrospective field of knowledge.

Brian:

Another question is the modality of writing you use in Notes vs. other writing projects. You use the words “inclusive” and “welcoming” often when describing the set of writing values applied to your site. When I read Notes I often imagine myself behind the eyes of another reader, perhaps the “imagined enthusiastic friend” you mention, someone who is looking at LA from afar and wondering about what’s going on here. I also notice that when you interview, and when I’ve seen you give a live talk, your language changes. I would say it becomes more specific, erudite even. Not that you are ever “unfriendly” (god forbid!) but let’s just say that the tone is not as breezy. (I guess that’s more of an observation than a question Geoff, but if it leads you somewhere…)

Geoff:

The “breeziness” you mention is something I learned from television and dialogue in literature, as well as from social media and movies, and mostly from advertising. I could call it a trick, but it’s really my voice, cheerful and engaging. In advertising, what really sells us is the tone; the words and images do their work after the tone makes us amenable to accepting their message. Advertisers sell things, and so do I. They sell objects and lifestyles that serve the agendas of their masters, where I try to sell a way of thinking, a habit of consideration that one can use for one’s own purposes. In one of my early emails I stated that “I can create more enthusiasm than a Pepsi ad, and I won’t eat your soul.”

I’m aware when I fall into that “erudite and specific” voice, I can’t say whether it comes up more in talking or in writing. I try to use language like a net, I use words to capture ideas. I have a sense that consciousness and awareness are, to use an analogy that David Foster Wallace employed to good purpose, the water we swim in. Ideas are similar to organisms in this water of awareness, or – perhaps better – like strands of DNA; and, in the way that certain proteins will bond with each part of a DNA strand, I believe that ideas may interlock with language and become concrete – or at least communicable.

Brian:

Let’s talk about that sweltering dreamland Parkfield that you and David are making your home.

Parkfield has been a place you’ve been taking artists,  curators,  administrators, and collectors to mix in an unpressurized environment; it’s the art world minus the art world, or the art world in a sort of hell-paradise. It’s such a surreal terrain. In the 115 degree heat of the summer, you just have to settle down, there’s nothing to do in weather like that other than relax and reflect, look at the cows under the oak trees, look at the Milky Way at night… What’s that landscape do for you, for the artists you bring there? What’s the emergent ideal of Parkfield?

Geoff:

I think the Parkfield adventures relate directly to Notes on Looking. Both share an intimacy and a concern for openness. They are both a-hierarchical. Just as I will write about an undergrad and in the next post discuss the work of an artist who has a thirty year career and museum shows under their belt, so at Parkfield we invite people from all stages of their careers.

As you know, we are now living in Parkfield, and I think you describe well the effects of the landscape here and how it frees one up. I think the “unpressurized atmosphere” is also due to the tone that David and I set. We are both curious and supportive and enthusiastic. We don’t do much judging; we ask questions.

Brian:

I see Notes as this massive gathering tool and Parkfield as something else, perhaps a reflective tool. With Notes you’ve made all these connections and have dug deeply into artists’ practices. In Parkfield there is the chance to bond, to establish long lasting personal relationships, and to ask “what is LA?” So Geoff, what is LA? (Can you imagine being asked that question? I ask myself this question all the time when I work in Native Strategies…in the murky future, what will I say to that young artist who asks “what was LA in the 2000s”)

August 23, ,2013

Geoff:

In a powerful dream I had this afternoon I saw a row of golden-brown hills, and on these hills were written words in a language that I did not understand. People were around – I would call these people friends; they seemed supportive, and I knew and liked them – I asked what the words meant but yet they didn’t know. I woke feeling that the hills could be here, in Parkfield, and they could be in Los Angeles, where I am from, and they could be in Diamond Bar, where I grew up. The curious language gave me a sense of recognition, and I felt as though I had seen the words before, and I would again, and that my understanding them is not necessary, that their meaning lies somewhere in the lives of those people and me, in the things we do and make.

“What is LA?” I started asking myself this question when I was a little kid.

Brian:

We don’t really want to know do we?

Geoff:

Finally, Brian, the conditions I found in our city when I started Notes were such that one could contribute without following the established rules, and without anyone saying, “No, this is the way you do it.” It was possible then for people to ask questions without immediately receiving an answer, and this uncertainty led to more questions and to people making things for themselves and for their community. Is my perception an example of me projecting onto the larger culture my own state of re-invention? Are things different now? What do you think, Brian? You mention your beginnings in LA via the “heterogeneous, pleasurable, irresponsible environments” of “queer, underground nightlife.” Where do you go from here? Would it be possible for a young artist / curator to find his way in such places now? Are there other venues that offer such freedom?

(left) Tanya Rubback (right) Brian Getnick

(left) Tanya Rubback
(right) Brian Getnick

Brian:

It is absolutely possible, it’s happening somewhere right now. Somewhere in LA there are groups of artists banding together, making spaces, sharing ideas, and experimenting that I am not yet aware of. If these people one day discover Native Strategies and Notes on Looking,  they may connect with us and broaden our scope in return for an attempt on our part to parse out their experiences and ideas, get them visible and remembered in our way. But it is also possible that this community will see us as totally irrelevant to their creative culture or even see us as representing the status quo. They may seek a better model. I hope for the former scenario but the latter one makes me hopeful too. That as projects such as yours,  mine and Tanyas solidify in the public sphere, the anarchic, definition-resisting energies that are so a part of LA rise up and face us. I would like to think that I will be prepared to greet that new face with open arms.

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