The Space Between Two Voices


Amalia Ulman, from Excellences & Perfections, 2014, Instagram photo, New Museum

The artist interview is a crucial resource for contemporary art history, scholarship and criticism. BOMB Magazine’s excellent series, “Artists in Conversation” is one example of a venue for these kinds of interchanges. The arrangements of these interviews, where artists interview other artists, efface the ethnological power relationships of observer and observed as both individuals in dialogue are equal participants in a shared practice. The dynamic here is collaborative and exploratory rather than a flat exchange of information. For instance in an interview between two sound artists, Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello, the pair discuss how the punk scenes of their respective adolescences have shaped both of their practices in distinct ways. They build upon these fundamental experiences and trace how their ideas on sound, texture, production, and art have developed through school and into their careers. They weave an intricate narrative, full of digressions, anecdotes on teachers and other artists, and reflections on past shows, gallery spaces, and scenes.

This conversation is engaging precisely because both participants begin from a similar place, allowing each to open up to each other in surprising ways. The interview captures this space of intimacy, documenting valuable information about the artists’ techniques, aesthetic approaches, thoughts, intentions, and personal histories. The role of artist interviews in contemporary art history is clear, but are there also specifically archival functions of the artist interview? The interview, in both oral and written forms, is an important component to the artists’ archive, creating a dynamic and polyvocal record that augments and supplements silences in the gaps left by other kinds of archival materials. While the topic is too big to cover in one blog post, I want to begin to explore the issue by touching on a few specific functions the interview can have for an artist’s archive.

One key archival function of the artist interview is to discuss and document specific artworks, especially works that are performative, multi-media, or otherwise ephemeral.1 These works do not leave any physical record, and so interviews about these works can fill in a silence in the artists’ archives. As an example of this, Amalia Ulman recently discussed her social media-based work Excellences & Perfections with Rob Horning. For this piece, Ulman staged a several month long performance over her Instagram account, where she completely changed her style of dress, the way in which she took and posted photographs—in short, her entire online persona—to analyze the ways in which identity is provisionally and perpetually constructed through social media, emphasizing the persistence of gendered and sexualized power relationships even in this sphere of supposed self-expression.

The piece occurred through time, through comments to the photos: through the sequential posting of one photo after another, the performance took place. The medium of the piece was the workings of the Instagram platform itself. Not only is there no physical trace of the work, but even the spare digital trace is fragile and entirely dependent upon the context of the Instagram platform. One way to document the piece is through the interview cited above, which creates a conceptual inventory of the work’s components, intentions and attentions, and effects through conversation. As the interview progresses, the pair increasingly digress into the aesthetic, political, and philosophical context of the work. Why is this work that so smartly adapts social media so powerful in this specific moment? A viewer encountering the work in 2015 would take this context for granted, but the interview archives this indispensable context as part and parcel to the work itself.

Horning and Ulman staged this conversation through a shared Google doc, an apt venue given the concerns of the work. To distinguish one voice from the other, each participant adds to the doc in blue or black font. The interview does not happen in a time or a place, but rather accrues in the shared virtual space of the doc. For many of us, the sheer volume of Google docs bandied about day in and day out is perhaps overwhelming, and the novelty of simultaneously editing a document has worn off, but this particular doc is marked off as special. The space is both intimate and open: a document shared among a few people, but with a knowledge that this a public record. While retaining the character of a dialogue, with back and forth between two unique voices, the Google doc also allows for greater elaboration, where conversation bleeds into essay. The result is somewhere between a Platonic dialogue and an online message board. The form of the interview echoes the work it seeks to document, achieving a many layered and rich archival record.

Another function of the interview is its openness to revision, transformation, and adaptation. Every time a story is told, it changes slightly, either in tone or emphasis, or even in major plot points. The interview dynamically creates these narratives through the interaction of two or more voices. Improvisation, reaction, and exchange motivate the composition the interview record. While more stable forms are necessary components of the artists’ archive as well, the interview complements other record forms in its ability to change over time (two interviews conducted five years apart will be radically different from each other, for example) and to capture complexity, contradiction, and nuance.

This kind of dynamic transformation is certainly at work in a Rhizome editorial posted by Dragan Epsenscheid last fall. In this post, Epsenscheid tells the complicated story of the Rhizome Artbase—but as a revised transcript of a talk he gave at the 2014 conference Digital Preservation, this time through iPhone-esque chat bubbles. What begins as a talk about the Artbase quickly morphs into a micro-history of online cultures, replete with emoticons, Geocities, and the peculiarities of Google autocomplete. Epsenscheid creates an oral record of his personal relationship to net art, Rhizome, and digital preservation issues, but also demonstrates that this record is constantly transforming. Throughout the narration, Epsenscheid embeds live tweets of others commenting on his original conference talk, blurring the original talk with this modified transcription, and further embellishing his own story with many different voices. As with the interviews discussed above, Epsenscheid also leverages the form of the oral transmission to engender a unique and all the more piercing record. While this is not a standard interview occurring between two individuals, both the talk and the post developed out of the talk reflect an active engagement with the audience. As with a standard interview, this record emerged out of exchange and interaction, and reflects the nuance of these many different participating voices. The chat form also mirrors how online cultures and internet art have developed and where these histories occur—an exchange in a chat room, over social media, or in the comments section of a blog post.

There are many practical concerns that must play into the artist interview,2 which we’ll cover in a future blog post. What I hope to emphasize in this post is that the artist interview does not necessarily have to follow any one method, structure, or form. In fact, experiments with form and method can result in richer interview records, more fitting to the particular artist’s archive or particular artwork documented. Regardless of how and where an interview is conducted, this kind of record plays many important functions in the broader archive, from creating a trace for lost and ephemeral works to vividly capturing the narrative of an artist’s personal and professional development.

1 Look forward to at least one future post for more on how the archive can meet the challenges of preserving digital (and analog!) art practices.

2 For a great book on all of the practical and logistical issues of how, when, and where to conduct an artist interview, see Beerkens, Lydia et al. The Artist Interview: For Conservation and Preservation of Contemporary Art and Practice. Heynigen: Japsam Books, 2012.