by Robby Herbst
RD Laing:“What has been, what might have been, what should be or might be. Can we describe the present in terms of its becoming what it isn't yet”- a term so frightening, so ominous, so cataclysmic, that it is sometimes easier to see the present already darkened by the shadow of a thermonuclear apocalypse than either envisage further declensions from that which our nostalgia absents us, or to see a redemptive dialectic immanent in the vortex of accelerating change1.
Robby Herbst:Over the past several months I have been conducting an interview with an artist whose work is not commonly perceived as socially engaged. The address of her art is formal- the visual experience of viewing the work appears primary as it sidelines conceptual conceits. Theorizing phenomenology is counterintuitive, and appropriately my interview with Katie Grinnan around her exhibit of photo-collages and sculptures,Adventures in Delusional Idealism, came together in an offbeat manner. My questions worked to develop a theme of“crypto political aesthetics.”About how, through formal experimentation, artists backdoor radical content- in her case turning the Whitney Museum at Altria into a bizarro universe where non-confrontational hippies simply missed the Culture Wars and the pariah status of Altria (a.k.a. Phillip Morris), and reign over decorating the corporate plaza, creating suggestive presences. Through the interview I was trying to counter a commonly held assumption and support the idea that, like the Beatles, style can be just as radical as substance.
Katie Grinnan:Delusional idealism stems from the hope of making seemingly insane possibilities not seem so insane. With my work, I like to try to create realities or open-ended spaces for the unexpected to inhabit. In doing so I embrace the absurdity that these attempts promote. Accepting a certain amount of purposeful delusion is a liberating experience.
R H:A particularly artificial boundary shaping the cultural landscape is the fence that separates“"political"art”from"apolitical"art”. As a genre, political art addresses contested themes directly within its text. Whether the address is polemic, relational, didactic, rhetorical, confrontational, illusive, angry, consolatory- if the art object takes on an“issue,”the work will be interpreted as political in nature. If an artwork refuses to forward a legible critique or does not present a coherent social narrative, it may be viewed sympathetically as“legitimate art”, and unsympathetically as“pointless crap.”Unfortunately, using language as a goalpost to judge an artist's social engagement creates a very short-sided mark.
K G:I knew that I wanted to mirror the different existing spaces with a hybrid space that had a more utopian, hippy, collective feel, but I didn't know exactly how that would evolve or effect the existing space. I wanted to keep it open. The best example of this is the piece that you mentioned with the crops called Salad. The piece used the two existing planter-areas as its site. It was also situated near the seating area and the cafe which serves drinks and snacks (like salad). It was also in front of the window that masks the VIP eating area. The piece itself was made up of buckets that were cut and pieced together to have the feel of growth and mutation. The buckets rose up to form a canopy where grow lights were hung. Different types of crops were housed in the buckets at the base. The first batch had corn, tomatoes, beans, and salad mixes. The buckets were adorned with stickers- sort of advertisements for the plants that felt somewhere between a farmers market look and ads from the new VW Bug (sort of an appropriated hippy look). They said things like,"Free Corn!""Take Some!"and"Fresh Beans."
The signs and my attempts at a self-sustaining agricultural environment felt absurd, since the climate (air conditioning and heat) was not conducive to growing crops. However there was an unexpected bounty of fungus. My aim was to raise the viewer's awareness of the qualities inherent in the existing space by creating a piece that provided an alternative environment to the corporate reality.
RH:The demand that an artists be able to define what they are hoping to activate on the broadest cultural levels is a pedagogical concern. Insisting that“relevant”work wedge itself into dialectical statements, denies the right for an artist to explore possibilities that visual experience (in addition to conceptual thinking) may turn on. The demand for socially located work to call attention to its transgressions, rather than embody them, comes from a limited conception of the political as just plain old politics. It's not surprising that many artists today find aesthetic radicalism and formal play productive fields to explore. It is surprising, however, that critics often dismiss work, which on first glance may appear unselfconscious, as nostalgic or unworthy of contemporary readings, rather than discussing the work in relationship to relevant theoretical modes and nascent desires of evolving problematics.
KG:In the piece called Window, which was probably the most direct piece in the show, a photograph that pictures the elevator to Altria is attached to the actual window. From inside the window-piece people could see the most fractured piece in the show, Magic Carpet. This piece was sort of an upside down tree that mirrored the existing fake trees in the lobby space. The piece was generated from photographs of the seating area in the lobby space and photos of the crops in the Salad piece. The photos became so manipulated that the original images almost disappeared into a psychedelic pattern. The tree lost its logic system and gained another. The whole show was composed of different stages of space growing and deteriorating trying to provide the present reality with one that was usually absent.
RH:How can you contribute to the freakosystem?
Herbert Marcuse:Socialism does not and cannot liberate Eros and Thanatos. There is the limit which drives the revolution beyond any accomplished stage of freedom: It is the struggle for the impossible, against the unconquerable whose domain can perhaps nevertheless be reduced2.
RH:Activist and theorist, Herbert Marcuse didn't demand that art be“right on”with its social critique. He actually appears suspect of the perfected statement. The pleasure principles of the Greek Gods, Eros and Thanatos, are not generally affirmed with dialectical art. He saw arts radicalism not within the specific ideas that an individual artwork's narrative advanced, but rather in arts generalized autonomy to depart from ordered existence. Through this process of estrangement, it is not the message that the artist writes into the artwork, but rather it is the way that the artist's creation contrasts from“the reality principle.”In light of Marcuse's position, which should be recognized as a counter-cultural perspective, arts ability to differ from readily accessible languages and known equations in-order to present unique situations and puzzles of experience- this may be where art s social possibilities multiply.
HM:Art reflects this dynamic in its insistence on its own truth, which has its ground in social reality and is yet its other.”Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human being, nature and things no longer stand under the law of an established reality principle. Subjects and objects encounter the appearance of that autonomy which is denied them in their society. The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer or yet, perceived, said and heard in everyday life3.
1The Politics of Experience, 1967.back
2The Aesthetic Dimension, 1977.back
All photographs courtesy Katie Grinnan or the Whitney Museum.