Nayland Blake is one of the most intellectually and aesthetically agile contemporary artists, producing work of incisive clarity as a curator, artist, writer, and teacher since the 1980s. He just completed the large exhibition FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and currently has an exhibition of new sculpture at Matthew Marks Gallery (What Wont Wreng, February 2 – April 20. He is also included in the New Museum’s NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (February 13 – May 26). Blake sat down with Jarrett Earnest in his studio to discuss the art and politics of the early ’90s and their implications today.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Let’s start by talking about In A Different Light, a show you curated with Lawrence Rinder at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1994, which attempted to create intergenerational linkages based on “queerness” as a strategy or sensibility, and was the product of earlier shows around queer identity that you put together and participated in. I want to begin here because I think the ways you approached many of the issues at stake in the work of the early 1990s sheds light on some decisions (or evasions) of the show currently at the New Museum.
Nayland Blake: Larry Rinder, who was the curator of the experimental exhibition program at the Berkeley Art Museum called MATRIX, noticed that there was a lot of activity within a group of young queer artists in the Bay Area, mostly centered around a gallery called Kiki that Rick Jacobson had started. I knew a lot of these younger artists so Larry asked if I’d be interested in working on a show about them at the Berkeley Art Museum. My immediate response was that it doesn’t take much sense to just take these artists and stick them in the museum. We decided to make the show not only a grouping of these artists but an attempt to put these impulses in an historic context, and to provide an index of the shows that had gone before that deal with “queerness.” That was a very conscious decision because we didn’t know when a show like that would be organized again, and we didn’t want it to appear that this had dropped out of the sky and we were taking credit for it—we wanted to acknowledge that it was part of a trajectory. The way that you perpetuate the scholarship on this stuff is by documenting it. Larry and I built constellations of works and asked what the implications of those constellations were. That is what led us to the idea that whether or not this person is self-identified as gay or lesbian or queer doesn’t mean that there can’t be an idea about queer thematics or a queer approach within their practice. It was an attempt to avoid the kind of identity politics trap.
Rail: Avoiding the traps of “identity politics” seems to be the real issue of the 1993 show. They ultimately do what they have tended to do, which is a kind of faux-sociology without making a conceptual/aesthetic argument. Your essay from the In a Different Light catalog is so important because of how you navigated these issues: by discussing formal strategies (using “queer” as a verb, rather than noun or adjective) and creating intergenerational groupings that open up, rather than close down ideas around art, identity, and their interconnection.
Blake: I do think that one of the problems coming out of the early ’90s is that “identity work” somehow got tagged as a style. This is the problem of trying to transform a society through a market. The various communities that came out of the postmodern explosion of the late ’70s and early ’80s overturned a lot of binaries of symbolic order, which met a market embrace. What happened going forward was that the market suddenly became the index of intellectual currency so that the dominant critical ideas also happened to be the most successful in the market. Once that happened, the forces of novelty and style that dictate luxury markets usurped a kind of intellectual discourse. What is happening right now is that a lot of people are waking up to that fact.
Rail: In the early ’90s you described the late ’80s as being characterized by “exquisitely refined art theory and art of exceedingly bad faith.” It seems that the early ’90s are a pretty distinct aesthetic and conceptual window before the later part of that decade/early 2000s, which weren’t marked by exquisitely refined but rather overly produced art theory and overly bad art. How does this market embrace relate to the interconnections of institutions like universities and museums?
Blake: I think it’s about balkanization. The university became even more removed from the marketplace in that galleries were scouting art students, so there was a bizarre bifurcation where in the classroom they were supposed to be paying homage to Benjamin Buchloh and yet you were supposed to get yourself together for your studio visit with a gallery owner. I really see the trajectory from the ’60s and ’70s artist-built institutions, which were structured to support each other’s work and provide critical responses. Through public grants, among other things, these marginalized communities actually had platforms to address a larger public and the intellectual discourse of art widened and became richer. Reagan and his intellectual heirs were about privatizing public discourse as a way of returning those voices to the margin. During the culture wars what replaced that richer and more complex cultural discourse was the market. Non-profit art spaces go out of business so everything happens in for-profit art spaces and what ends up there are things that necessarily must make money.
Rail: One thing that was very canny about the thematic categories for In A Different Light—like “Orgy,” “Family,” “Void”—was that there was “Drag” but no “Camp” which seems especially smart. In your essay you discuss “drag as method” in the work of younger artists like Robert Gober, where very fine materials are parading as mass-produced “low” materials, or seeing appropriations like Sherri Levine’s as a form of drag, continue to be useful. However, “drag” has a more public presence than ever, so can we talk about how Drag and/or Camp function now?
Blake: The way that I describe Camp is meticulous scholarship engaged with an inappropriate subject. Jack Smith’s whole apparatus functions to meticulously research everything that has ever happened around Maria Montez. So it’s about researching and knowing things, but the object of that research being something that would be derided as trivial in straight scholarly circles. That to me is the essence of Camp as a strategy which has broken down because it relies on the rigors of scholarship, and we live in a time where those values aren’t really being promulgated.
Rail: Jack Smith is precisely the example I want to talk about because, okay, we all love Jack Smith, but I’ve had so many conversations recently with “academics” or “anarchists” who are on their knees for him as the paradigm of a “critical art practice” for today. To the point where Jack Smith is now institutional “good taste”—it’s the safest thing you could write a dissertation on right now. I now question Camp as a non-category, or at least as a deeply historical one.
Blake: As someone who was alive in the 1970s I remember the work you had to do to find things out—that is where the value of Camp came from.
Rail: As a form of investment? Do you feel there is a general dis-investment in culture?
Blake: No, I feel that we have to re-learn that culture is separate from information. There is an abundance of information but it doesn’t matter. I can find images of “white supremacists” and “bestiality” and “Austrian Gothic Lolitas” and all of it requires the same thing which is just some typing and none of it puts me at any sort of risk or reveals me. And that is the thing that is different. Talk about the Times Square Show: it was sketchy to get there. The block just off the train was a block you easily could get robbed on. That was revealing in a very different way than googling is revealing; we relate to those experiences differently, we hold onto them in a different way. So the struggle we have right now is to regain that.
Rail: From your other interviews I take it you object to people, especially of my generation, who see performance practice as an extension of photographic practice.
Blake: I think there is a real problem in learning a performance through photographic documentation, both the still and the video. People who do that spend a lot of time constructing the performance as an image. What gets left out is that all temporally-based things change, and so people tend to conceive of these pieces as unified tableaux: the curtain goes up its one way, it’s that way for a while, and then it goes down. It’s similar to how people now think the only way that video can exist is as an endless loop on a monitor or projection: it doesn’t matter where it begins or ends, you walk in or out; it’s not a structured experience. That is where I’m suspicious of photography and video as a learning tool.
Rail: How do you understand the relationship between “art” and “life” or the problem with a lot of “identity” work—“autobiography?”
Blake: If you look at that work as a way of mapping a simplistic relationship to identity it’s not useful. I think what we need now is incoherence. The drive to narrative closure is one of the things that is incredibly debilitating at this moment.
To go to your point about “art” and “life”: I am interested in honoring the value of a response wherever it comes from, without acting as the translator of those experiences for an art public. One of the nicest things anyone said to me at the Matthew Marks opening was “wow, this is like the hottest lesbian cruising area I’ve ever been in.” What more could you want for your show! I think that there’s a really irritating model where you are supposed to gather up the material of your life and massage it into shape and present it to the art world where supposedly its going to be your calling card to value. To me that is a kind of impoverished and time wasting approach because you already have people in your life that are providing that kind of tribal response and the art world’s version of that is no better or worse.
Rail: Because you are someone who has written a lot in your life, and very cogently, how do you see the relationship of your curating, artwork, and writing?
Blake: I think of them as all the same practice. There are things that you can do through curating a show that you can’t do by making stuff. Similarly, if I can get it done in writing why bother curating a show? To me that’s a proper use of formalism.
Rail: You’ve said you see a lot of interesting stuff in people’s studios and not a lot of interesting stuff in galleries. What is the disconnect?
Blake: I think people need to divorce the vehicle of the gallery from the showing experience. A big part of doing Free!Love!Tool!Box! was trying to be present in the space as much as possible. I’d love to see a move to a workshop-archive-exhibition model, to have places where you could go and see works, engage with people who are making new things, and also display those new things. A cultural institution that allows all those things to co-exist is very exciting to me as a model.
Social media offers the opportunity to de-authorize gatekeepers; I think institutions that are able to understand themselves as peers and partners fare much better in that arena. For example, why did I find the Abramovic show so problematic? Because it was really clear that MoMA in no way was willing to be changed by the presence of that work, which to my mind, was all about not requiring the authority of a place like MoMA to provide it with validity and about changing the relationship to institutions. The show demonstrated that MoMA had to change nothing to host that work, that in fact it became yet another stamp of approval, which meant very little in the larger picture.
Rail: Many historic performances, like Gina Pane’s, had maybe ten people in a room, but they still seem to matter to me. So I want to understand your wariness around knowing performances though images and writing; or, how can performances be communicated to people who weren’t there so that we could feel betrayed by how they were staged in the Museum of Modern Art?
Blake: Here this perfectly ties back into the kink thing because the way you experience those performances in the kink world is by doing them. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kink community because I’ve found a lot of people engage their creativity and construct performances where the audience is the performer. Both of the participants have an equal level of commitment, which is very different than the way things are in the contemporary art world. It’s not like you look at pictures of piercing and decide what your relationship to it is, you have something pierced. To me the proper way to understand those performances is to enact them, treat them as a musical score.
Rail: Then what is the best way to accept the utter loss of the live performance and still create a history and communicate it to others?
Blake: I think you have to abandon the idea of trying to broadcast it. So yeah, maybe those pieces in the 1970s only had 10 people in the room and maybe that is all you needed. I think that one of our biggest problems is imagining that you have to scale everything up, that if 10 people know about it, then if 100 people know about it then it is 10 times better. Let’s abandon this weirdly capitalist notion that anything has to be infinitely accessible to anyone at any time, and so everything has to be reproducible. That thinking buys into certain myths about market places that I don’t think serve us. You can have this experience of sitting there and Abramovic will stare at you, and you stare at her, and because there are cameras on you, you know there will be some other people looking at a video monitor of her looking at you. To me the power that show gave to television was so undermining, deadening, and anti-immediate. That was where it felt like the institutional stamp was the heaviest—reproducibility, catalogability. Is she a remarkable artist who should be honored at the highest level? Yes. But if that institution honors you, it will do it in a particular way that says more about it than about you.
Rail: Doesn’t this imply a level of atomization? If pieces exist in small pockets and don’t move out into a broader awareness, doesn’t it impoverish our ability to have conversation around what culture is? Doesn’t work have to move outside its small circle in order to be legible?
Blake: No, I don’t agree with that. I think that that buys into the broadcast myth and if you look at the history of human culture the overwhelming majority takes place within very small groups of people and it’s only the curse of our time that we imagine another possibility.
Rail: So if I make something that uses the Aeneid as a reference, and you’ve never heard of the Aeneid, how then do we have a conversation about this thing that the Aeneid becomes a triangulation for? Aren’t common references vital to communication?
Blake: I think that what ends up happening is that we have a discussion about a lot of different things and if the Aeneid is the solution of your piece then we have a problem. The thing I’m more interested in is the other stuff that comes out of the pieces that I’m not consciously putting in. Again at the opening of the Matthew Marks show there were a lot of my friends who were not necessarily “art people,” and so they always have a lot of anxiety looking at the work. I always tell them there are two rules: one, you can’t get it wrong, there is nothing for you to “get” that you’re not getting; and two, just ask yourself what it looks like and what it reminds you of and you’ll have a productive relationship with it. I’m so much more interested in hearing responses to those questions than I am listening to people produce indexes to show me how conversant they are with a set of art world references; the former is where I learn something. That is how I see something outside of my own blind spots. We’ve so internalized these positivistic notions of how a culture functions that we forget that we actually use culture as a receiver.
Rail: I had a conversation with one of my best friends last night and we decided that if you look at someone’s art and then you don’t want to fuck them, or at least not fuck them more than before, that indicates a “problem” with the art. So much of your work uses sexuality, sometimes as a fact but more like an armature, so how do you see the relationship between art and sex?
Blake: I really believe that the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. So for me those things are continuous. I literally teach a class at kink events called “the artist’s way of designing scenes.” It’s a class where I’ve put together a methodology for how to have some sort of a play scene with someone that is exactly the way that I make my work. One of my current hobby horses is that this performance work of the ’60s and ’70s that we talked about evolved simultaneously with the rise of certain sexual practices in the kink and S-and-M worlds: people were doing exactly the same things but for different audiences. Both impulses were the result of certain ideologies about bodily presence and social change. People were trying to alter their relationships to other people by altering their bodies. In the past I’ve called myself a sadist because I think the lesson of de Sade is that ideologies issue from bodies, that they come from physical beings, and that you cannot divorce one from the other in the same way. I still believe in that possibility of social transformation of what used to be called Sexual Liberation; I’m not so sure I’d use that term now, but certainly through an embodied consciousness. So I agree with you: the best pieces make me want to fuck. One of the things that is never really discussed about Richard Serra’s work is how cruisy it is. It’s all hanging out at the docks, people looking at each other, and that is a very different read. The surprise and allure of those spaces is something that is never really talked about but is palpable in the experience of his sculpture.
Rail: How do you feel about the general move toward looking at these works from the early 1990s in contexts like that of the New Museum show? What are pitfalls or opportunities of doing that?
Blake: I think the benefit of any of those things is not immediately apparent. You hope that someone will look at that stuff and then go off and do something really weird with it. In the ’90s there seemed to be a lot of ways to think about making a piece. If that impulse gets codified into a look then it’s useless, but if it’s about looking around at what you’re doing right now and energizing that sense of possibility, then that is a positive reason for doing these shows. This leads back around to sex because I believe there are two types of people: people who fuck to confirm an idea they already have about their identity and people who fuck to explore all the possibilities of their identity, and part of what was going on in the work of that time was people exploring all of the possibilities. They weren’t confirming identities, which is the fallacy of calling this “identity politics” work. People have taken an exploration as a confirmation or a closing down. From the outside that is more comforting because if someone else is confirming their identity that means you do not have to question yours. If you acknowledge that there is the possibility of exploring your identity, whatever that might be, through the process of making things and thinking about them, then the burden of why you are choosing not to do that is on you. So the very conservative aim of boxing up this work is all about foreclosing people’s own personal exploration.