Peio Aguirre: Yesterday you presented in our seminar your project Panel 2: “Nothing better than a touch of ecology and catastrophe to unite the social classes…” which is an installation-based exhibition shown in 2008 at Gasworks in London and in 2009, in slightly modiﬁed form, at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery in New York. This exhibition project revolves around the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA), among other subjects. The conference theme that year was “Environment by Design.” Can you give some background on that conference and your speciﬁc interest in engaging with it in your exhibition?
Martin Beck: Let me start with distinguishing the “Panel 2” exhibition from the conference itself. The exhibition addresses broader issues than the 1970 IDCA’s particular history. “Panel 2” deals with what I started to call the “Aspen complex,” an umbrella term I used to bring together a set of cultural histories, artifacts, and artworks. The aspen is a tree of the poplar family; it is a resort town in the Colorado Rocky Mountains; in the 1960s it was the title of a magazine in a box; between 1951 and 2006 it was the site of the IDCA. In the 1970s Aspen was also the test site for an experimental mapping project. One could easily continue this list. A number of these narratives are brought together in the overall project.
PA: So it is one narrative among other narratives?
MB: The conference is the key element. It anchors the project in time and place but it is not the project as a whole. One could understand the conference as the hinge that anchors the project. The hinge allows for things to move and other elements can come forward.
PA: In your work you sometimes address speciﬁc moments of design history. How did you decide to start this project? What’s your working method? Yesterday you said your work is about reading one discipline from the perspective of another: reading design and architecture through art and the other way around. I am interested in the method itself, how you conceive your exhibitions, how you develop artworks through such historical facts. The objects or artworks made by you are not typical produits derivés but rather something in between. What is the status of the exhibition in relation to the historical facts, in relation to “aspen” in all its facets.
MB: There are multiple starting points for each project and multiple methods that go into their making. Some of them have to do with classic research, research into historical narratives, into history, looking at archives. But there is also research into form and form making. This looking at or (re)searching for topics and forms happens concurrently. Sometimes they are tightly intertwined, sometimes less so. Repeatedly I “collect” terms, phrases, and forms as I see them pointing to methodologies. They are elements and metaphors derived from (re)search; little incidents, objects, or constellations that are capable to speak as emblems. These incidents can open up to larger issues, they are powerful enough to function as metaphors for a larger body of looking and thinking.
PA: You also mix historical artifacts with artworks made for the occasion. Do you consider your work in an essayistic way taking on different shapes? Do you consider the exhibition as a medium that brings all those materials together and combines them?
MB: The exhibition is certainly the primary medium to bring the different elements together in a physical space. But I would be cautious to talk about my practice in relation to an essay format because an essay has a very clear purpose and structure: it narrates in a linear fashion, from A to B; and narratives are inherently deﬁned by closure. Exhibitions have the advantage of being an open form, meaning they are capable of opening up existing and constructing new paths that can be travelled, crossed, and cross-connected without a deﬁning conclusion in mind. The exhibition is a ﬁeld within which intersections can be created. I am less interested in tracing a narrative with a clear-cut path as is common in the essay or even documentary formats. That’s not what I’m after. My interest is in the intersections, the ruptures, the paradoxes.
PA: One of the deﬁning features of the essay (and its genre) is that the raw material from which it originates exists beforehand; it is already there. You also engage with references and you don’t create your work from nothing but start from existing historical facts and then create networks and connections from those references. I also see your work distinct from certain appropriationist practices in which the artist uses the past in a postmodern way, reviving an aesthetic or a style from the past. You leave the references to exist by themselves rather than cannibalize them. An example would be the use you made of Eli Noyes and Claudia Weill’s documentary ﬁlm IDCA 1970 in “Panel 2.” The ﬁlm is there as both a part of your own work but also separate from it, standing on its own. I am interested in the status of those references.
MB: I don’t think there is any outside to working with references. As an artist one is always working from within culture—there is no outside to culture. Some of the references I tap are rather speciﬁc, they are referring to actual historical events, cultural artifacts, people, practices, etc. So I am interested in making this speciﬁcity of working from within culture, from within history visible, making it an aspect of the work. Sometimes this is more obvious; for example, when an artifact from another time period is situated right next to something that I authored recently. The exhibition as the container in which these are brought together allows an audience—but also me as an artist—to look at that juxtaposition and construct from this newly emerging relationship a different sense of culture and knowledge. Time periods, modes of production, spatial experiences can thereby be intersected. Making that happen is, on a methodological level, the potential of the exhibition medium.
PA: It could be said that the world is full of forms that are in a dormant state, just waiting to be awakened or reborn. In “Panel 2” the leaf of the aspen tree plays an important role, conceptually and formally. You are using it as a motif that, metaphorically, organizes a lot of background related to the Aspen narratives. How were those forms already at work in the cultural sphere? You’ve been addressing historical information that few people have thought about before, for example the Struc-Tube exhibition system by the US-American designer George Nelson. You have given that rather unknown project a new life that reactivated a certain historical moment. I would like to ask you about the role of the artist as an historian and how art practice can play a role in writing (or re-writing) the history of disciplines.
MB: I always insist on stating that I am not a historian but that I “speak as an artist.” There are certain things historians do or have to do that I just don’t do, can’t do, or have no interest in. But I do have an interest in histories that seem pertinent to how certain aspects of present culture are understood. I am interested in how history constitutes our current way of looking and understanding. So it is not an engagement with history as data or narrative in order “to tell history.” It is an interest in understanding the present as a construct that is put together through ﬁgures of the past. This might sound strangely sci-ﬁ, but the methodological question would be: How to identify, in the present tense, possible futures that are buried in the past?
PA: Archaeologies of the future...
MB: You name it! Maybe that is what I’m after?
PA: Maybe it is related to a collective amnesia that contrasts with cultural practices that continuously engage in rediscovering the past. There is a contradiction—not in your work, though—between cultural practices that are based in reconstructing the past while our amnesia keeps growing.
MB: I’m not so sure about the amnesia aspect. Of course, there is always a certain sense of distance, of willful forgetting. You have to leave the past behind in order to move on. Isn’t that the function of the past? It might be that whatever happened in the immediate past is not something you want to deal with in the present. What seems to be easier to relate to is what happened a generation ago because one has enough distance to connect to it without getting entangled in memories.
PA: That also resonates in Fredric Jameson’s idea of nostalgia.
MB: You mean being too close to that past?
PA: I would say we need at least two decades in order to revisit the past. That’s how nostalgia works in fashion and in consumer societies. But back to your project “Panel 2” and with it to the Aspen conference. We are living in a moment in which issues about ecology are rather urgent and are continuously debated. I am wondering how both your project, the 1970 IDCA conference and its theme “Environment by Design” could be instructive; or what the effects on our present time may be, if there are any?
MB: This is a question that came up repeatedly when I started the project. I had a number of discussions about it and was very cautious in making direct analogies between the debate that happened at that conference and its transfer to the present tense. It would be all too easy to engage in something like “retrospective prospective thinking” and say: “Oh! This already happened; this debate happened in Aspen in 1970, so let’s look for answers there.” I don’t think the relationship between the present and the past works that way because there are different contexts and power relations, different players and challenges at work. What I was focused on in my engagement with the material was the mode in which, in that framework, a complex discourse emerged that connected a number of ﬁelds: a discourse that was simultaneously about ecology, modes of address, and orientation.
PA: So the exhibition does not have a pedagogical purpose in itself even if your practice is full of pedagogical methods.
MB: Yes, there is no moral to the show.
PA: It makes me think of a quote by Gregory Bateson that says, “There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds.” He tried to explain that ecology is everywhere, to explain that ecology is part of our ethical way of dealing with everything and there is no way of not acting ecologically....
MB: To give an example: The structure of my video work in the exhibition, The Environmental Witch-Hunt,is structured around the fact that there is no deﬁned lesson to be learned: the video shows a group of people wandering in a dense aspen forest. It is not shown how they got into the forest or if they ever get out of it. They are purposely walking around but with no clear direction, in one scene they cross the frame from left to right, in the next they are going in the other direction.
PA: They are trapped in the forest?
MB: Well, maybe not trapped but they are looking for something without a predeﬁned goal being evident. They keep going but there is no point of origin and no destination as such. The video loops into itself. It includes two scenes in which the protagonists come to a halt: one scene shows a man and a woman from the group practicing a speech, but it is not clear what their relation to the speech is. They are working through it, ﬁguring out intonation, etc., but are also trying to understand it. They ask each other “Is this what it means?” They are practicing to deliver it in an authoritative manner but they deconstruct their own authority at the same time. This opens up the ﬁeld and pushes beyond certainties. That is different from being trapped. The protagonists in the ﬁnal scene of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are trapped: they walk in the forest and everyone inhabits a speciﬁc book, they all carry a certain memory in order to preserve it. But that is a very apocalyptic point of view deﬁned by closure.
PA: So the role of your video could be to link the past and present, to be a mediator between two different time periods.
MB: In a certain way, yes. But it is important that the video is set in the present tense. It is not a “costume drama” where the protagonists are neatly outﬁtted to match a period look. The ﬁlm is produced with contemporary technology—and that is noticeable. There is no mistaking it for a product of the past, no fetishizing formal qualities of past technologies. It is “a product of now.”
PA: The relationship between art and design has been a topic in contemporary art for a while. There are many practices and many approaches and quite a lot of contemporary artists use or cannibalize design. What is the difference between your way of dealing with that relationship and the way other artists do? You are using design history but you are not designing functional or non-functional hybrids between art and design. Your position is rather radical....
MB: Yes, I don’t build lamps, I don’t design trailers. Despite an interest in the overlaps between the two ﬁelds, I have also been very keen to recognizing their boundaries, formally, conceptually and economically. To say it in an ironic (or maybe polemical) way: I am not even interested in “design” or “architecture.” What I am interested in is how our built environment constructs social conditions and discourses, and how social conditions (as well as discourses) can generate form. Design and architecture play an important role in it, but my practice is not about objects or buildings but about the relationship between the social and form.
PA: It is about the ideology behind certain practices, the ideology behind certain objects or historical objects.
MB: Maybe even more than ideology. We are sitting here in Harry Bertoia chairs, they are beautiful chairs and rather comfortable. An interesting way to look at them is how these chairs produce us and our conversation here; how they make us sit and how the way we sit produces a place for us in this room in relation to the other people in the room. I am interested in how these chairs affect our being together. How does a designed object “make” me and what are the discourses (of history, of form, of politics) that are generated through that? How do these chairs produce our conversation? One could also describe it the other way around: how does the way I want to be with people produce objects and forms.
PA: So you are, maybe, more interested in George Nelson’s writings than in his products or designs.
MB: I wouldn’t say that. I love Nelson’s objects, I even use some on a daily basis. I am interested in an artistic thinking that does not allow itself to isolate an object from its larger social context. I was mentioning in the seminar yesterday that I was reading Bruno Latour on the way here and that I was intrigued by his description of a triad of arenas that he sees as always interacting: the built environment, the physical objects, whatever we call “the inanimate world,” the things that do not have a consciousness, do not move by themselves; secondly, our social environment, the way we are together; then, lastly, a discourse that exists on the level of representation. The intersection of these three arenas would be where I would want to situate my relationship to design.
PA: That, maybe, is also the freedom and the potential of being an artist: the potential of being always an amateur or a dilettante.
MB: I would even say: always being simultaneously an expert and a dilettante. This makes me think of the question of medium again. Traditionally, artists were deﬁned by a medium in relation to a skill or a craft, as in “I am a painter,” “I am a sculptor,” etc. By practicing continuously one would become an expert in that medium. But I don’t think that a craft-based deﬁnition of medium is very interesting. I think of the medium more as an abstract apparatus, as a set of rules (and deviations from rules) that can be applied in various ways.
PA: But aren’t techniques and skills always an aspect of the medium? Yesterday you showed some diagrams that you made in order to prepare your exhibitions. They seemed very basic but at the same time very straightforward and sharp, even beautiful! It made me think about ﬁnding the right tools for the right intention at the right moment and in the right space, while adapting the tools to personalize them or to adapt them to your own interest. The professionalism versus amateurism tension is something that an artist is dealing with all the time.
MB: I have learned over the years that “the freedom to do things the wrong way” can be an asset but it is also a monster that might have to be tamed here and there in order to enjoy its company. For example, there are tasks that are part of my practice which I sort-of know how to do but not enough to achieve a standard that is satisfying. If a certain skill level is important for the result then I get a professional rather than fetishize dilettantism. If it is not clear what the ideal result would be then a low skill set might be useful to open up new paths—but that can also happen with a professional who is willing to experiment. So there is no clear-cut answer. It is the tension between the two that is intriguing.
PA: Did you work with someone else for The Environmental Witch-Hunt video?
MB: Yes, I worked with a cinematographer with a full crew and, in post-production with a professional editor.
PA: What about your photographs? I am wondering, for example, about the images of Superstudio’s Quaderna bench you made back in 2005 as part of your work an image-guide?
MB: I hired a professional food photographer to do that because I wanted to work with someone who had experience in the spatial aspect of close-up photography. But I have also done works that include photographs which I took myself such as in Rumor (June 14, 1969). You mentioned my working drawings: over the last few years I have developed a way of preparing exhibitions on the basis of layered ﬂoor plan drawings. They are not the kind of drawings an architect would do, although they are scaled. I have noticed that the better I got at doing them, the more a reverse productivity emerged. And I started to wonder if the exhibitions they were made for started to look like the way I was able to draw them. I realized that this is exactly the point where one has to distrust one’s own skill set.
A project that I am currently working on requires some graphic design skill and at a point in the production process I had to decide if I do the graphic design myself—this is something I actually have some experience and skill in. I tried to visualize what my skill set would generate and started to get more curious about bringing a different graphic voice into my practice. So I hired a professional designer for the task. I described to him what I was interested in but gave him complete freedom to do what he thought is right within that framework. I wanted to challenge my own way of generating form. That is something that excites me as a mode of productivity: to not rely on a model of authorship in which I control every aspect of how things look, but, as a method, to focus on a larger set of rules, across different skill sets, that hold together the larger practice.
PA: How could this be applied to the context of art schools? You are also a teacher and we are speaking here in an art school. What could students learn from such a way of working?
MB: It is hard, if not impossible, to answer this in a general way. The courses I teach have a strong focus on the development and reﬂection of method. Even when teaching ﬁrst year or second year students I shy away from giving them clear assignments or tell them how to work. I show them projects and practices that I am interested in. We talk about how these came about, what their contexts were, how they were made technically and conceptually, how they communicate.
PA: So do you look at concrete examples to ﬁgure out that question of methodology?
MB: Yes, and mostly not my own. We look at practitioners from different ﬁelds whose work has a strong sense of reﬂexivity. We focus on how they generate things. In teaching, I want to create situations where the students learn how to reﬂect their own process, where they start to think about why and how they are doing certain things, why they are interested in certain things. The initial phase of those courses has sometimes been frustrating for some students because they were expecting assignments and I did not tell them what to do. But at a certain point most of them were able to turn the situation around and started asking themselves: “What am I interested in?” “Why am I in art school?” “What do I want to learn here?” I often ask art students in individual meetings: “What do you do when you don’t do art?” I ﬁnd their answers much more revealing about their thinking and interests. And that might be a better starting point for developing a practice that is close to one’s heart.
PA: Do you see a link between your artistic practice and your role as an educator? I can identify certain educational values or paths translated into your body of work. I ﬁnd this quite interesting, also because you don’t really make things for the market. Your position allows you to do what you do without entering the market. You don’t create commodities and your additional role as an educator allows you to have a lot of freedom in your art practice.
MB: It is not exactly right that I don’t make objects or commodities, I could name quite a few works of mine that would be perfectly marketable. It is, of course, true that my primary audience has, at least so far, not been the gallery- and fair-driven art world. But that might have to do with other aspects than a supposed lack of commodities. There is nothing wrong with getting compensated for what one does.
You mention an educational aspect in my practice: the one thing that runs through most of what I do as an artist is an interest in the mechanics of communication. To me this interest deﬁnes a core issue that I have often circumscribed with a phrase from a 1947 Christmas card exhibition: “the artist in social communication.” How does an artwork interact with a public, how does it construct a public? I would call that issue an aspect of display, in the broadest sense of how one can understand that term. The reason I am interested in and have often focused on display is because of its potential to generate agency in the exhibition realm. Maybe that is what you meant with the term pedagogical. I am interested in the ways an exhibition can empower an audience. I am interested in the subject positions it offers a viewer; how an exhibition constructs a gaze; a movement; an opportunity to make connections, etc. These issues are all tied to the notion of display. So, one could say, engaging the notion of display deﬁnes the core of what I do as an artist.
École des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, February 2nd, 2010