In Conversation

ROBERT WHITMAN with Joan Waltemath

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Robert Whitman was born in New York City in 1935. He studied at Rutgers and at Columbia University. His pioneering multimedia staged works in the ’50s led to the formation of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), in 1966 with scientists Fred Waldhauer and Billy Klüver and artist Robert Rauschenberg. His one-person exhibitions include the Jewish Museum, NY (1968), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1968), and the Museum of Modern Art, NY (1973). Dia organized a retrospective of his theater works in 1976. His projects have also toured European venues, including the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1987 and 1989) and the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2001 and 2002). His new work, Passport, will be performed April 16–17 at Dia: Beacon and Montclair State University, NJ.

Robert Whitman: To tell you the truth, I can’t really tell you what I do. It’s not a play, and it’s not what people refer to these days as performance art. I just use whatever comes to hand as part of the medium, so it could be the space or the films or whatever I think is evocative of what the image is that’s trying to come out.

Joan Waltemath (Rail): Could you talk a little bit about how the idea for Passport came about?

Whitman: Okay. In most of the pieces that I’ve done, I like the idea of people having a specific point of view, and if not one person, it could be a group of people who see the piece in one way, and another group of people who see it another way. So there are specific communities that may have an experience that’s not the same, but it’s the same piece; let’s say it’s the same thing but a different point of view. So there’s that aspect of this piece, because it’s going to happen simultaneously in two places, and there will be aspects that have to be different: one is going to be outside, and we do outside stuff there, and one will be inside in a conventional theater, and we’ll do inside stuff there, and transmit images from one place to the other, so that they mesh—part of the same composition, but different.

Also, I do like the challenge of the situation being a little bit out of control, I think that’s fun. The other thing is that this is a rationalization, but it’s fun to do that anyway sometimes. It’s a way of explaining it to somebody. There are things you can do outside in a park in Beacon, on a river, that you can’t do inside a conventional theater in Montclair, and there are things you can do inside a theater in Montclair, that you can’t do in the park outside there in Beacon, and also there’s the overlaying thing which is that you have an idea and you take it to a place, and they say, well, you can’t do that here. So you find another place that you can do it. Now we can send a signal from one place to the other, so you get that image in the theater. Now, you can have horses in a theater, but not quite how I am going to have the horse here, but you can’t have a burning boat on the Hudson River in a theater. And there’s a couple of things you can do inside a theater that you can’t do in a park. So we’re going to figure out a way to send them back and forth.

Rail: Now, after doing all these different works that are in a sense grounded in the site in which they’re created, are there salient characteristics of the site that you have been able to distill as something that you are looking for?

Whitman: Well, a river, of course, it’s not dealing with the river, it’s just that you’re lucky enough to be able to get people to look at it. And I think that’s pretty salient. Maybe the piece is just an excuse to get people in the park to look at the river. Maybe that’s all that I’m doing. You know, this is one of the great rivers of the world, take a look, you know, don’t take it for granted.

Rail: When you go out on a journey, do you have a sense of what you are looking for, or do you let yourself wander?

Whitman: I’d much rather be surprised. I think most people would. We have a common friend, she did the lighting on the piece that you saw, and I took her to the train, and I missed the train, for her, and when I saw her again I apologized, and said, “Look, Carol, I’m so sorry you had to wait around for the train,” and she said, “Oh no, don’t be. I had the chance to wander around and it was great.” I mean, that’s my kind of person, and that’s what we want.

Rail: People like that are truly rare birds. Now, as I read through the score for Passport, I was really struck by the potent metaphoric possibilities of your images, and as I was trying to think about questions, I found myself wanting to know how much you considered the effects you create beforehand, and how much things just appear in your work. So maybe my first question would be, are you thinking about the audience’s experience when you construct your works, or could you explain how your process works?

Robert Whitman. “3 Big Shirts from Hole.” Sketch for some of the ideas from Passport, 2010.

Whitman: Thank you for thinking so. You know, right now I’m sort of an old guy, and at a certain point you realize that you are marooned on an island of your own vocabulary and language, and that’s the ballgame. So you sort of try to reconfigure all that stuff, but you still only have access to the stuff that’s in your head, you know that same mind isn’t going to reveal any new minerals to mix a whole batch of metaphors. So that’s what I do, try to let the stuff surface in a way that it didn’t before, or maybe surprise myself, and if I look back, I’ll see certain things that, oh geez, I did that again? How come I didn’t get bored? Stuff like that will happen.

Rail: Passport struck me as much more emotional than the piece Ghost I saw in 2002 at the Pace Gallery. The first image—bringing in boxes that are covered up—seems very resonant of the particular moment that we’re in. Do you see it like that?

Whitman: You know, if I thought about it, I wouldn’t tell anybody, it has to be a part of it. I like things that stay pretty abstract, even though you could put meaning, and like you said, the metaphor, you used that word before, which is most of the time kind of a dirty word. I’m perfectly happy with that idea, but I don’t like defining it.

Rail: If you begin to define the metaphor, then that limits it.

Whitman: Thank you, that’s exactly right. That’s perfect. Then you put a ceiling on what the work is really about, which is something you want to keep ongoing. I’ve made work specific to particular experiences, but just as a rationalization or a framework, or a format for work, and I’m not gonna talk about those particular pieces, but I’ve done it. In a couple of cases I’ve done it as an emotional response to something that has happened—specific, not to me, but other stuff—but that just gets to be, let’s say, the context of your mind, that might trigger something more unknown. [Laughs.] If you’re lucky.

Rail: If you’re lucky, but then there’s a fine line between having an agenda and letting things surface.

Whitman: Well, also, you mentioned before and I use that language myself, it puts a ceiling on understanding what it is. And it stops somebody from getting it.

Rail: What’s interesting now is that I, in the place of the audience, am talking about all these issues, with you as the artist sitting there with, well, not a disclaimer, but acknowledging the truth of that process. So having said that, what do you think the responsibility of the artist is today to the people around them, or their audience?

Whitman: I don’t think it’s any more or less than it would be to any human that you meet on the street. That’s about the way I’d like to relate to that. And particularly the people who are helping you out. Like the students at Montclair who are working on this piece, or the guys at Dia who are part of the crew and helping out, so, I mean, what can be more valuable than that kind of experience? Maybe it’s very selfish of me to sort of indulge myself in all that stuff; I’m not an intellectual to think about things, I’d rather act on that other level.

Mimi Gross: The images that Bob has given to the world over 50 years, they stay with all of us. It’s a totally abstract experience of seeing, knowing, doing, and a hierarchy that’s non-verbal. It goes to a point where it reaches out to you, the love is felt or seen, or not, you know that it has been taken to become what it is. Within that framework, as performance, it is an intuition, and in Bob’s work, it’s not about being intellectual. His work is a larger, universal metaphor. The new piece, Passport, is going to be beyond, I mean, I was going to ask the famous Passover question, why is Passport different from all of your other performances? It is probably because they’re always different.

Whitman: Or they’re always the same.

Rail: When you look at a work, and you take some understanding from it visually, or emotionally, or on whatever other levels you are able to apprehend it, that is one thing, but then when you confront the problem of how to articulate something about it, you run into all of the limitations of words, and the power of articulation to form our perception of something in one particular way or another. I think with your work it’s particularly challenging. Reading it for the content is very easy and very pleasurable, because it’s so open and that’s part of its abstract language, but finding a way to talk about it or to ask a question—

Robert Whitman. “Horse 2.” Sketch for some of the ideas from Passport, 2010.

Whitman: Well, that’s your problem. [Laughs.]

Rail: I am aware of the difficulties I’m facing here. It would be fine, perhaps, to say nothing, but we would not get an interview out of that.

Whitman: No, you wouldn’t, and people have probably published blank pages before.

Rail: In light of what was just said about the difficulty of finding the right way to talk about something that is very complete in visual form, what is the place of irritating or stress-producing sound in your work?

Whitman: What a question. Where did that come from? That’s interesting because I’ve actually done that.

Rail: It came out of reading your score.

Whitman: Really? Is there a thing in there that says something like that? Because in one piece I did record what I consider to be the most irritating sound in the world, to use as a punctuation mark of some sort, or the beginning, or like an attention-getter, and that sound happened to be the sound your dryer makes when it has finished its cycle.

Rail: Horrifying.

Whitman: So that’s an example of using an irritating sound. In this piece I don’t have any sounds that I find irritating, so far. Did I make a note to that effect?

Rail: I thought the backhoe backing up might have like an—eee-eeee-eee-eee.

Whitman: Yes, that’s a very irritating sound. I never thought of that, but that’s part of the nature of a backhoe. This piece has a couple of sounds that I like in it, if I can think of them. One is shoveling; one is, if we’re going to mic the oars and oarlocks in the boat rowing. There’s the sound of furniture being dragged across the stage in Montclair, and the furniture is mic’d so its going to produce this cosmic kind of a roar, almost like the universal background noise, of the Big Bang or something, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. It’s kind of a white noise. There is going to be some sound of the performers crashing through the boxes, and there’s going to be about a 10-minute verbal section, which is a definition of the word, “word.” So that’s the sound of this piece, and they seem to present themselves as part of the nature of what I’m doing; for example, in the piece that you saw, there were two groups of sounds besides the sounds the performers made when they were doing stuff. One was reports that the airfields make, they send out weather conditions, runway conditions, and so on. At each airport you go by you’ll get a fresh thing, and the specific reason for that, which is a technical reason, is that they want everybody within the radius to have the same settings on their instruments; otherwise, you might have a problem. In terms of altitude, for example, if everybody knows that the altimeter setting is such and so, there’s no chance of two planes running into each other, which they could do, if somebody missed a cue. So there was that, and there was some whispering. I don’t know if you remember that. So those are the kinds of sounds that I might do. And plus the sound of the people actually making the stuff, the beam coming through the wall makes a sound, I think—the guy making the door, that piece of paper on the back wall kind of crumbling made a sound.

Rail: Do you ever let your performers speak of their own volition, or do you write text for them?

Robert Whitman. “Shirts pulled by HB.” Sketch for some of the ideas from Passport, 2010.

Whitman: No. I provide the words.


Rail: How do you distinguish the people that you work with from the objects? Like in this piece you have this person moving upside down, and right side up, and on some level the body is being handled like an object, and on another level, it’s not.

Whitman: Okay, when people have said things like that to me in the past, I’ve always been sort of offended because I always thought that I relate to people as people and its part of our little relationship dialogue.

Rail: I would make a distinction like this: as I read through your score, I don’t have the feeling that human psychology is part of your subject.

Whitman: [Laughs.] No, it isn’t.

Rail: When one starts working with an abstract language, there’s already a decision to pare things down to their most essential qualities. One of the most essential qualities of being human is having a body——

Whitman: Yes, that is very important, and all of my work is body-based, in the way that you are talking about. In fact, when I tried to get performers to help, I specified physical people, I wanted athletes, and as it happened, the only ones I could get were dancers. This is the only time that I have ever used dancers like that, because I didn’t have the time to develop the kind of relationship that I needed with a certain individual to have them do what I needed to have done, in an athletic manner.

Rail: Do you find that working with certain performers has influenced or changed the pieces? When they get involved, I mean, coming from this point of saying, we’re dealing with the object aspect of body.

Whitman: If you get to know somebody pretty well, I like to think that it triggers an insight of a movement, or an idea of a movement, that otherwise you wouldn’t have access to. An example that comes to mind: I was very familiar with Simone Forte and I specifically had an image in a piece that I knew only she could do, that was very athletic, and strong movement stuff.

Rail: Do you think memory plays a big part in experiencing or understanding your work?

Whitman: I like the idea, for example, of having references to the images contained in the other images that happen over time. I’m not going to be so obvious about it. I’m not a very good listener. I mean, I like listening to music, but it’s hard for me to remember what goes through, but you like the idea of picking up a theme and hearing it a little later on. So, I think people remember things, subconsciously—I guess that’s the word I’m looking for. They may not remember it, but they’ll remember it somewhere. The experience of Thing A will color the experience of Thing D down the line, I think, so that gets to be part of the memory.

Rail: And then there’s the difference of when one person looks at A and D, and then the other person looks at A and D, and what their own experiences have been, and how that resonates for them in their own memory bank.

Whitman: Yes, I think so. Well, I’ve heard that idea expressed. Cage points out that Duchamp says the audience is the finisher of the work. That’s one way of expressing that idea, but if there is no work there for the audience to finish, you know, that’s it.

Rail: It was interesting to read through your score because it is so intimate on one level to see the drawings and feel how your work emerges in a way that’s going to enable it to be produced. At this stage, though, the only thing I could draw on was my imagination of how these things would be occurring. I found it very inspiring to confront it at this level. One of the most powerful images for me is the shirts moving through, and thinking about how a shirt creates the void of the body, its latency, right, it’s not there. I started to think about all the beautiful Native American shirts with beadwork I had seen hanging in museums and how they represented people no longer here.

Whitman: Aw, man, see this—I’ve done a lot of pieces with shirts and with clothing, and I always am aware of the fact that all these clothes and piles of clothes are like ghosts, so you said it, I didn’t [laughs]. Yes, they are a presence of a person’s form. At the end of the shirt site thing, the shirts that are set outdoors and are on fire, we’re going to have a fire in them, and the ones that are indoors will have projected fire on them.

Rail: The colored strips that rise from the performers’ clothes, indoors and outdoors, really struck me as well. These lines going up into the sky, you want them to go on forever.

Whitman: Well, you know, the original idea was to let them go. I mean, my original idea was just to have these things disappear into outer space, you know, with the balloons, but they would become a hazard [laughs].

Rail: Speaking of hazards, the final projected image in the score is the boat on fire drifting out on the water.

Whitman: Yes, well, that’s interesting; I just thought it would look beautiful, because there’s a natural opposition between fire and water, not to be obvious about things, but as I say, I’m nothing if not obvious. The other part about fire and water is that a boat on fire is probably one of the worst things in the world, and most dangerous because it’s just going to burn, you have no where to go. The other person on the poster remarked how small that boat got when it caught on fire [laughs]. Curtis, the guy who was rowing, knew very well that the water was only about a foot deep, so they could have gotten out very easily. They could have stepped out. Apparently the Hudson in those areas is not deep, and there is a channel for big boats, but the rest of it isn’t so deep.

Rail: Interesting. Well, that might be a good thing to have in your interview—some people will want to know that these individuals are not in danger.

Whitman: No, they’re not in danger.

Rail: Where did the title Passport come from?

Whitman: Everybody asks me, and I have to tell them that it popped into my head and I just decided, and then I made the piece.

Rail: I had a moment at the very end of reading the score, where I felt a deep reflection on the condition of the social body of America embedded within this piece. I found it amazing the depth of what came through to me from looking at these sketches. They have probably been scanned, digitalized, sent online, printed through a printer, then out comes a vague image. You can see there’s not a whole lot there by the time it got through all those processes. Yet, they ended up being very potent. This drawing looks like a warrior with a full headdress sitting on a horse.

Whitman: Oh, that’s because those are scribbled notes there and I don’t know what they say, but this shows a person horizontal on the back of the horse.

Rail: When I saw this drawing it made me think about history, and how much history is important for you in terms of your work.

Whitman: Well you know, I enjoy that sort of thing but I have a lousy memory. Nabokov says to be a good reader, you have to like a good story, and have a good memory, and that’s why I’m not a good reader, I have a terrible memory.

Rail: Do you think there is anything people need to know about Passport before they go and see it?

Whitman: No, I don’t think so. I think everything is implicit in the piece. A concern of mine was that people in Montclair become aware that a similar performance is happening at the same time in some other place, when the images get sent to them, and through the triumph of modern technology. We are not a network who’s capable of transmitting these things in crystal clear high definition, so it’s gonna look as though it is coming live from some other place. It has that look of the cell phone reports that we are getting from these war zones. You know, where the signal breaks up a little bit or it gets herky-jerky at a certain point, so it’s going to look like that.

Rail: I see, it really seems to change the atmosphere when you have a sense of being “live.”

Whitman: Very much, I think it does. I’m trusting that gets to be a very serious part of the piece. The fact that it is coming from somewhere else as well. The idea of the tension between two places, or the communication between two places, you know that’s what we do.

Rail: There’s something uncanny about the intimacy that the live transmissions cause when you’re in a situation and you’re aware it’s live and therefore present at another location. It’s such a beautiful antithesis to the world that technology creates.

Whitman: Let’s hope so. Though, you never know, and that’s kind of fun, too. When we did Local Report, I just trusted that it was going to work out, and that the people were going to be as poetic as they turned out to be. They were more poetic than I thought they were going to be, because when you read the text, you’re astounded. I am, because it’s readable, and it’s beautiful, and it’s what people say. When people aren’t self-conscious, in particular, it’s amazing to me how beautifully they express themselves, and this simple thing, I just ask them, tell me what you see, and because they’re not thinking too much about it, they would see something, and it’s beautiful.

Rail: Well, being asked to report on what you see creates a whole condition of looking that wouldn’t be there without asking.

Whitman: Well, yes, you’re right, but it’s not so overt as that. In this piece everything is written down and people do what they’re told. But for the other stuff, I really don’t like giving orders, and typically when I have the opportunity to work with people over a period of time, they find what they do, and I don’t have to tell them, “This is what you do.” They find it.

Rail: It’s really inspiring how you’re creating the latency for other people to think about and reflect on what is going on. Right now with the way the media functions—where can people go and have the space to reflect within a framework that allows them to think?

Contributor

Joan Waltemath

Joan Waltemath grew up on the Great Plains and now lives and works in New York City. Her abstract paintings focus on constructing spatial voids using harmonic progressions and non-traditional, reflective pigments in oils. Drawing has long been at the root of her artistic practice, serving as a means of abstract thinking. Her works on mylar and paper use diverse wet and dry materials. Shown in New York, Chicago, Portland, London, Basel, and Cologne, her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. She is the recipient of numerous grants including Creative Capital, and the Pollock-Krasner award. She has written extensively on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She taught at the IS Chanin School of Architecture of the Cooper Union from 1997 to 2010 and at Princeton University. She is currently the Director of MICA's LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting.