“I’ll take a picture of you, do you want to hide behind the code?”
Michael Riedel and Jarrett Earnest at the American Museum of Natural History
In 2000 Michael Riedel co-founded the collaborative space Oskar-von-Miller Strasse 16—a live-action “copy machine” that replayed art events around Frankfurt as low-budget performance art—chronicled in the massive artist’s book Oskar (2014). Riedel continued to parse the formal and conceptual implications of that project in solo exhibitions of paintings, posters, installations, and books. His primary operation is translation: using voice-to-text software to make non-sense poems of de-installation noises; or pasting HTML text into various processing programs, where they are altered and printed as wallpaper. An obsession with recording and replaying defines his oeuvre, which is often described as a “self-sustaining artistic production.”
For his current show at David Zwirner, Riedel exhibits appropriated images of dinosaur skeletons blown up, rotated, and draped in vinyl stickers of a Dick Blick Art Supplies bag. The walls are pasted with a texture coaxed from overlays of website texts using information for art material as material for doing art. Riedel admitted that he thought it was a misunderstanding when I asked him to do our interview at the American Museum of Natural History (“My work isn’t about dinosaurs”) but he showed up anyway. We met in the Roosevelt Rotunda, beneath the arched neck of its iconic Barosaurus, and commenced drifting around the museum, discussing his art and the displays.
Jarrett Earnest: A few days ago I saw you in a gallery; you were dressed in a slim black suit with pointy shoes and your sunglasses on—chic. I was wearing work boots and head-to-toe denim. I thought, we’re both characters in a film, but I don’t know which one. In that spirit, I was hoping we could treat this interview like a fiction—even a play. You can be “Michael Riedel, German Conceptual Artist,” and I’ll be “Jarrett Earnest, Trashy American Writer.” Okay?
Michael Riedel: My suit was green, not black.
Earnest: Oh! Your suit was green—a very dark green then.
Riedel: Very dark, that is why I’m saying it.
Earnest: I heard you actually wanted to be a writer?
Riedel: I’m really interested in writing. The problem for me was choosing one perspective, because there are so many you can take to look at things. Also meaning the writing style you choose. I couldn’t really focus on a writing style.
Earnest: I see your books as experimental literature, which they have rarely been discussed as.
Riedel: Good. You recognized that. You’re the first. There is so much text in my work but nobody recognized the literature part.
Earnest: How did you start to use text as a material?
Riedel: The solution to the problem of perspective was using a microphone, which is blind. It becomes part of a situation. I started recording different situations and transcribing them. It gave me a good feeling to have fifty pages written in one day, which would be really hard if you were writing by yourself. The first tapes were nineteen minutes, then forty-five minutes, then one hundred and twenty minutes, and with the Minidisc and the long-play models I could easily record for hours and hours.
Earnest: How did the ability to record longer durations affect the resulting form?
Riedel: It got longer.
Earnest: The big Oskar book repurposes the cover of Warhol’s a, A Novel (1968), which is audio recordings of twenty-four hours in Ondine’s life, transcribed word for word.
Riedel: It’s not really a day. Warhol sampled it together over years and called it a day.
Earnest: Of course—it’s fiction, a novel!
Riedel: I wasn’t really happy with the Warhol face on the cover because his face is used all the time, but it was the perfect cover because we could use the “A” to spell “Oskar.” The Oskar text is a transcription of a three-day recording where we sat together telling all the stories we could remember. The intent was to tell the story of Oskar, while looking at how difficult it is to tell the story, or to tell any story. You are confronted with so many details that you can’t put together. Going through the details creates errors in the story. That is also one part of the whole activity of Oskar-von-Miller Strasse: doing a translation that automatically produces new kinds of errors.
Earnest: A new kind of eros?
Riedel: Yeah, this was the aesthetic aim of the space: badly done translations.
Earnest: So the eros is created through the differences, by the distance between the two?
Riedel: The distance between two things. In translation, you have two points: a starting point, and a point that refers to the starting point but which also marks the distance from it. You could ask: is it about the product, or the distance that is created.
Earnest: The act of transcription is often treated like a neutral process. In Oskar, there are hundreds of tiny literary decisions that go into transforming a live conversation into a text. I’m interested in transcription as a kind of stylization, or as the product of meaningful choices.
Riedel: Did you say there was a hundred decisions? Lets make it three: I think there was the decision to not mention names.
Earnest: No punctuation.
Riedel: And every speaker got a new line. I think that is it.
Earnest: Well, there are no markers of sounds like “ahs” or “uhs” or “ums;” there are no filler words like “like,” which people certainly use in normal speech. To me, your Oskar text reads almost like a poem. Even though they are supposed to be different people, one has no sense of any individual personalities.
Riedel: How many people did you imagine?
Earnest: I reduced it to three in my mind, but I assumed there were more.
Riedel: There were seven.
Earnest: There is no way to hold seven individual people in mind in the way that you’ve done it.
Riedel: It’s like ghosts speaking.
Earnest: It actually becomes more like a texture.
[Stopping in front of a miniature model diorama of 3100 BCE civilization.]
Part of the reason I wanted to come here was to think through some things in your work from a totally different perspective: Very little of any of this is real, but it purports to communicate some authentic information about reality. Could we talk about information and reproduction, temporarily bypassing the “digital” and the Internet? I mean: look at this atmospheric painted landscape behind this miniature mud city. It’s so funny! With a really recessed light hidden at the top of a curved wall.
Riedel: [Rubs hand on a large fiberglass mound in the center of the small gallery.]
Oh! This pattern must be text!
Earnest: Lets see what it is: “The Code of Hammurabi.” Look at how fabulous this plaque is: the signage is totally rubbed off!
Riedel: It’s a reproduction, so you’re allowed to touch it.
Earnest: That is why its information has been erased. I’ll take a picture of you, do you want to hide behind the code?
Riedel: Text as object—that’s always nice.
Earnest: The effect of this rubbed-out text is not unlike your wallpaper at the gallery.
Riedel: No, it’s different. This form is more interesting than the gallery walls.
[Walking to a miniature diorama of Siberian people.]
Riedel: People in sugar.
Earnest: Sugar People! They live in the northeastern Siberia.
Riedel: What are they doing with that dog?
Earnest: They are going to kill it!
Riedel: Oh, it’s disgusting. Totally out of context.
Earnest: It’s just to impress upon children that life is hard. I love the way these things show age in unintended ways. All the displays are kind of dusty. There is a layer of real dust over the fake snow—which is pure poetry.
Riedel: There is a nice parallel at a museum in Frankfurt. They reconstructed ruins from Italy, miniature to scale using cork, like in wine bottles. So you have these nice ruin landscapes but they got a small animal in them that started to eat them, so the reproduced ruins were actually ruined by this animal, and the look was great. It was a great double situation.
Earnest: The first time I can identify you being a character in your work is the lecture-performance you did in Frankfurt in 1997, Michael S. Riedel.
Riedel: Yeah, with the bag.
Earnest: I thought it was interesting that the face was replaced with a word—that the image was superseded by language. I wanted to know more about that piece; you were in art school then, right?
Riedel: The lecture itself started by quoting advertising slogans. Like from Ikea: “Discover the Possibilities;” or Audi: “Life is full of possibilities; or Toyota: “Nothing is Impossible.” The whole lecture was about “possibilities,” trying to get to the point where “possibility” could itself be a kind of material. It ends with me putting a bag over my head saying, “I am Michael S. Riedel.” Looking back, I would say it is an interesting split between two people: there is one person under the bag and another was standing outside writing. I think I’m more the artist standing outside, writing the name. I feel very comfortable being the invisible thing behind the mask, so that I am not defined, or exchangeable, or whatever.
Earnest: W. H. Auden said, “For a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.”
The way a lot of people interpret “information” and “technology” in your work is as a confrontation with a paralyzing amount of possibility.
Riedel: I like when the works themselves say that they could be different—show the potential. I don’t have to produce 4,000 paintings to make this clear. It should be concentrated in one painting; easily changeable.
Earnest: At what age did you first want to be an artist?
Riedel: My parents were not really into art. My grandmother wanted to be an artist but she couldn’t, because of the War. But her mother was a painter, so maybe that is where it came from.
Earnest: What kind of paintings did your great-grandmother make?
Earnest: Do you still have any of them?
Riedel: Yeah. Also, lots of watercolors. When I started I was studying to do stage designs for theater.
Earnest: What kind of productions?
Riedel: Modern plays. I did three real stage designs for a theater in Germany.
Earnest: What were they like?
Riedel: For one I used an H&M advertisement for the background, like a billboard, and the actress had the same dress on as in the billboard, so there was a nice interaction—the distance in between two things. Around 1995 my teacher in Düsseldorf said, “You’re wrong here. What you’re doing doesn’t fit into a theater class,” and I changed to fine arts.
Earnest: A lot at Oskar-von-Miller Strasse sounds like experimental theater.
Riedel: Yep. You could see the whole activity as a big play. That was an understanding within our group itself.
Earnest: Did you discuss it in theatrical terms—in terms of scenes, sets, etc?
Riedel: For example, there were events called Clubbed Clubs (2001 – 2007) where we played soundtracks recorded at dance clubs. The sound created a frame for the event. Even though there were only ten people in our space, it sounded like it was packed. That was a nice atmosphere. Five hours later the sounds went off and the play was over. In between, everyone was “on stage” and doing whatever, whatever they wanted to do.
Earnest: It’s like theater without characters or a plot, where the actors are the audience. What was it like translating these projects into a visual-art context? When you were in art school what was it like?
Riedel: Like a lot of people judging what you were doing. My reaction to the situation of being judged all the time was to create a reflex—wanting to be not responsible for what I’m doing, but at the same time having the wish to produce, because I wanted to be an artist, but in a way that can’t be really judged. That is how the idea of doing copies came up, especially with Oskar-von-Miller Strasse. When you are doing events that are not taken seriously, everybody has to catch the frame at some point—that’s the idea.
[Coming upon a green-screen setup with large lights and a cheerful young museum photographer.]
Riedel: We should get our photo done.
Museum Photographer: You guys can try it just for fun.
Riedel: Who chooses the background?
Museum Photographer: Each pose has its own background.
Riedel: Let’s do it—that’s why we’re here.
Museum Photographer: You can put down your things over there.
Riedel: No, we hold our things. I’m wearing my hat.
Museum Photographer: First one: just smile. Now, give me claws. Now, keep those claws up but look up at that light, and look really scared. Now show me muscles. And then I want one with your hands straight down and smiling.
Riedel: I forgot to smile.
[Photos are printed.]
Earnest: Look at us in space!
Riedel: This is where we went today.
Earnest: I feel there is a lot of humor in your work, which has had zero critical discussion. Do you see play or humor as a central part of your work?
Riedel: I would say so.
Earnest: It is most obvious in the piece Moving Walls (2001), a parody of an exhibition in Frankfurt where motorized walls moved according to sensors—you and a friend crawled around the gallery floor under cardboard boxes. Or that littlebook, Neo (2005), where you reproduced the guest book for David Zwirner’s Neo Rauch exhibition with the transcription of the art handlers conversations beneath the names, so its like you have all these art-world people saying, “Yeah, I don’t know, over here.”
Riedel: With Moving Walls, it turned out to be funny. Our aim was to create this indifferent expression so you couldn’t know it if was a joke or an homage. But of course we were not paying much attention to recreating the walls so the boxes were really simply made. I think it is always nice to be surprised with what you’re doing, so not controlling the whole thing. Humor is in the moment of being surprised.
Earnest: Obviously your work has to do with translations between mediums, but I’m curious about the translation between cultural contexts, and how that becomes part of the work. The fact that your work is never discussed as funny in the English-language press is part of a translation issue—they don’t understand the humor of it. How do you think about that kind of translation, translation of place?
Riedel: It was my decision to translate the “conference of anecdotes” in the Oskar book into English to reach out to a different audience because even in Germany it wasn’t taken as humor. Maybe it takes more time, the next generation is discovering Oskar and they can see it as funny. When I show the Moving Wall video in lectures sometimes nobody laughs and I don’t know what to say.
[Walking around the suspended Blue Whale in the Hall of Marine Life.]
Look at that whale—it looks cheap. That is not impressive at all. Even though it looks big, it looks so—
Earnest: This whale is beloved by all the children!
Riedel: Maybe they have a bigger sense of fantasy.
But this is good to hear, because at some point I thought maybe nobody gets the humor, or the attitude.
Earnest: Taking HTML code and printing it out is a funny gesture because it is so stupid. It is like doing it exactly wrong.
Riedel: Doing a print is the only way to get things out of the computer.
Earnest: Digital text and a printed book imply different relationships to time and history. In your new book, Poster—Painting—Presentation (2016), you note an access date along with the text you’ve taken from websites, which recognizes that the article you are pulling can disappear from the Internet, or be altered in some way. By turning it into a printed book, it can’t be changed. In some ways books are more physically vulnerable than websites, but in others they are more stable.
Riedel: I think of it as framing time, or framing change.
Earnest: Speaking of framing time we’re looking at the “Four Seasons in the Woods” dioramas.
Riedel: We should stay here until we’ve finished talking about time.
[They sit on a bench in front of “The Cycle of Nutrition and Decay”.]
Earnest: “Chlorophyll from plants is acted on by sunlight which makes food.” Look at that dead bunny! It’s eating the fake leaf! Look at how “respiration” is missing an “S.”
Riedel: There are a lot of letters missing on signs around this museum.
Earnest: It’s touching.
Riedel: Do you remember that scheme of art history in Oskar? It’s a chart I found in a book showing art movements from “1800 to Today.” It stopped in 1985. I found it in 1995 and thought, something is missing. I added the year 1995 and I re-copied the whole scheme of art history into that one year, bringing this 180 years together in the twelve months. Then in this “1995” the year was included again, which means the whole scheme repeats again, again, and again. It was not only the gesture of bringing all of art history together in one year, but of creating something in 1995 that is self-sustaining—a moving object. If art history deals with my art, it has to deal with a moving thing itself.
Earnest: A lot of your operations rebel against linear progression. When you arrange all the words of a catalogue essay alphabetically, that is a way of destroying whatever sequential order that made the author’s thoughts, and which would unfold in the time of reading. If we’re not dealing with a linear model, like cause and effect, how do you think of it?
Riedel: Different ways.
Earnest: I felt you use the computer icon of the “spinning wheel” that way. Either to represent that time has stopped, or that change has happened and hasn’t yet become visible.
Riedel: I like all those interpretations of the spinning wheel: more time needed to deal with the information; processing is going on; an infinite loop is happening. As a computer symbol it’s well known, so it’s something everybody experiences—so it’s to have these quarter- and half- circles on the posters.
What do you mean with these different ways of moving when you say “non-linear"?
Earnest: I’m thinking of how you seem to take objects that have a flow of time embedded within them and re-order them.
Riedel: I really like “click” moments—where you can do things with a click. It goes quickly, so I don’t have too long to think. Bringing existing texts into alphabetical order is like going back to whatever else could have been written out of these words, which I think is a good step. For example, the Sigmund Freud Institute got a new building, and for the conference room I did wall panels putting into alphabetical order the complete text of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.
Earnest: Did you get into the posters through music or theater or film? I ask because all of those scenes reference popular posters more than art galleries.
Riedel: My early posters were not documenting the artwork, but everything around the artwork. As a young artist you know that not many people are going to show up. Sending out a poster or a show card for an exhibition is a gesture that will reach more people than with the actual artwork in the show. The Oskar book is a good example—that is how David Zwirner got in contact with me, through the first Oskar book. I know in the book it looks much better than it was in real life.
Earnest: How? It looked really fun.
Riedel: It was fun, no question. But so many times there were only five or ten people there for an opening, but the right shot from the right angle makes it look like, “Hey, this is great, this is packed.” When David saw the book, like you, he said, “Looks like a lot of fun, but I don’t know really what the art is.” For me, Oskar-von-Miller Strasse was an empty space as a sculpture, but leaving it empty is the most boring thing you could do. So we had to do something which could be read as nothing—a copy of something else. Most of the people who experienced the space at openings remember it as a party space—we had to make money selling drinks, so we’d turn on the music really loud and there we’d go.
[They begin walking again.]
Earnest: Several projects have to do with partying and dancing; you must like dancing.
Riedel: We had these great games for when we were out at clubs and the music was really bad. One of us would have to start dancing even though the music was really shit, while the others watched him. Then it was the next one’s turn, and so on. Another game was “dancing next to the tallest”: going onto the dance floor and getting as close as possible to the tallest person. There were some nice games we created just out of being bored.
I made a piece in the Kunstverein in Braunschweig. The show was titled Exhibitions Seen and Not Seen [Invitations 1997 – 2015] and there was a closed door, behind which was played one of the club recordings.
Earnest: So it sounded like there was a fun party that you couldn’t get to?
Earnest: A lot of your work has that feeling, like there is something you can’t access.
Riedel: It’s maybe the possibility of having access. The same way the image of the plastic bag does in the new show: it’s not the real art material, it’s the thing that carries all kinds of art material.
[Entering the Hall of Human Origins, seeing a vitrine with a hominid couple, male and female, walking together.]
Riedel: This is cute. Where is her other hand? It’s hanging loose! She’s not touching him.
Earnest: What is the name of this?
Riedel: “Right Before the Break-Up.”
Earnest: Or, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.”
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.