SETH PRICE with Will Fenstermaker
PETZEL GALLERY | NOVEMBER 8 - JANUARY 5, 2018
Talking with Seth Price can feel like circumscribing an amoeba. One is aware of protean boundaries, but also a rigid cell wall where certain issues attempt to broach. In advance of the artist’s winter show at Petzel Gallery (his sixth with the gallery), I visited Price’s studio with what I felt was a solid understanding of his work and interests. By my second visit a week later, my assumptions had fallen apart. Price (b. 1973, Sheikh Jarrah, Palestine) seemed content to let the pieces do their own work, without validating an interpretation. Knowing, it turned out, could be a form of not knowing.
Sometime during my third visit to Price’s studio—the visit which forms the core of this interview—I began to believe something he’d warned me about at the very beginning: that it can take years after completing a project to be able to speak about it coherently. Before we could touch on his recent works—a new installation of Social Synth (2017); the artist’s light boxes, ongoing from those recently on view at MoMA PS1, the Stedelijk, 356 Mission, and Museum Brandhorst; and a number of new mixed-media paintings—we began at the beginning, and discussed the shift when Price began to consider his activity as art.
Seth Price: You asked me why I used to have such difficulty calling myself an artist, why I wasn’t comfortable calling myself one until well after my first show. I think it’s that I see being an artist as an activity, not an identity.
Will Fenstermaker (Rail): But do you find that freeing in some way? Would that identity somehow limit what’s available to you?
Price: “Artist” is a story someone else tells about you. Like, when I quit my day job in 2005 I became an artist according to the IRS. Obviously, the label is true. It can be useful. But it still feels corny. It’s like “husband,” or something. In college, I always felt like people who introduced themselves as artists were making a plea for exceptionalism or some special coolness factor. I’m just saying art is about the doing of it.
Rail: You studied Modern Culture and Media at Brown, where you started making films. And then you moved to New York, in 1997?
Price: Yeah. After a year or so, I got a job at Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) because I thought I could edit my own videos. I didn’t start seeing shows or triangulating my work in relation to art until around 2001. I think I almost had an allergy to that. I needed to find my own way.
Rail: Your work is often positioned as being technological. Is EAI where you became interested in the underlying technological frameworks of all these things?
Price: I’m not really interested in technology. I think that was a stumbling block for people for a while.
Rail: Why do you think that misconception developed?
Price: I’m interested in the contemporary. In the life I live, in the corner of the world I’m in, if I say I’m interested in contemporary culture then I’m already talking about something that’s heavily technologized. My work is as much oriented toward design or fashion or advertising as it is toward technology. But for a long time it was easier for people to see the technological aspect. The story around my early videos was, “He’s interested in technology because he used a computer to make a video.” These days, everyone rips material off the web for their video or their song or their painting, but you don’t say they’re technological. I think I was just a little earlier in doing things the way people do now.
Rail: What aspects of contemporary culture guide you?
Price: I have a weird push-pull relationship with culture, I don’t like to get too deep into anything in particular. I like to take things in osmotically. I was never a cinephile when I was doing film, and it was the same with the internet. I try not to be online, and I’m off social media now.
Rail: I’m surprised by that because you’re often positioned within an art-historical framework of someone who uses technology to make new kinds of images, or even sometimes as an artist who makes art about technological conditions. Your writings, particularly “Dispersion,” (2001) are often framed as pylons for a certain idea about art and technology.
Price: Yeah, I know [sighs]. I wrote “Dispersion” for myself. I didn’t write it with the intention of doing something with it. I was interested in dematerialized art, and I was trying to understand, could I make objects? What would they be? That essay was the way I worked it out, and then it felt natural to circulate it. At that moment in the culture there wasn’t much writing on the confluence of art, digital technology, and internet distribution, so people were hungry for something. If I had written that eight years later, it would be just another thing lost in the churn.
Rail: Do you wish the essay had dissipated somewhat?
Price: I wish it was recognized as another experiment, rather than a manifesto, or a purity test. People would ask, “How can you make saleable art, haven’t you been advocating for…?” I mean, I was just fucking around in that piece, trying to see how to proceed. And then I moved on.
Rail: Why do you think it has stuck with you so much?
Price: If you write, you fuel the notion that all your works are associated with ideas or language. And people have often struggled to understand the meaning in my work; even people who are into it might say, in an accusatory way, that the meaning isn’t clear. So people look to something language-based for the explanation. Maybe every artist gets that.
Rail: Well, not every artist writes and not every artist who writes achieves the kind of persona of being a writer that you have.
Price: It’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a writer.
Rail: You didn’t think of yourself as an artist either.
Price: I always thought my writings were just part of my art. They’re experiments. They’re closer to the realm of poetry than the essay. An essay is presumed to be a first-person subject position; the person is relating something they believe. You don’t bring that to a poem.
Rail: But you didn’t adopt the form of a poem in “Dispersion.”
Price: No, but it doesn’t function as a coherent essay, either. Lack of resolution is something we grant certain kinds of expression, and once you grant that, a kind of richness can unfold. In all my work, I’m kind of trying to go against thinking. But language also interests me, so my writing has to hold that tension. It has to be language against language, which is tricky.
Rail: One of the things that was interesting for me to watch, during a talk you gave recently, was that I could see a version of this play out in real time. Everyone wanted to know what this book is that you made [Knots (Berlin/New York: Hatje Cantz/Petzel, 2018)], and what it means. People were clearly uncomfortable with your insistence on its ambiguity as a book without words.
Price: Somebody asked, “What’s the point of the book?”
Rail: [Laughter] You said there is no point.
Price: What’s the point of making a song? It’s not an interesting question to me.
Rail: Yeah, and I see that. I think because we’d talked about this I was your most sympathetic listener in that room. I think a week ago I would have been annoyed at your answer, or felt you were being flippant. I would have wanted to hold your feet to the fire.
Price: I think that’s also maybe why some people, especially writers, have been interested in my writing. They’re looking for an explanation. “Is this sculpture illustrated, maybe, by this thing you wrote?”
Rail: And the answer is no.
Price: Well, there’s not an intent. And because I’ve done some writing, people assume I’m articulate about my work or like to talk about it, but in fact, I don’t know how to talk about it [laughter].
Rail: I see that it creates a double illegibility. To read your essays literally is the first misinterpretation—of that work and what its aim is—and then to apply them as a thematic guide to another work is the second. Part of me wonders if you almost can’t help introducing ambiguity into some form or genre, including this interview [laughter]. If you can’t help but pull apart structures to see how they work and where they fail, can’t help but meld into this shapelessness.
Price: Maybe that’s part of the aspect of play. When I make work, I rarely have a concept or an idea beforehand. You set up processes and materials that come out of interests, then mistakes happen and change is introduced through the way things interact, and, eventually, through some kind of branching tree, you wind up with something. Chance, and that improvisation, is a central part of my work.
Rail: In what sense? Obviously not in the aleatoric sense of someone like John Cage.
Price: No, it’s not that programmatic. Let me walk you through this piece from the Stedelijk [Seth Price: Social Synthetic, Stedelijk Museum, 2017] show. This began as an experiment with printing on embossed metal. I used an image file from the light boxes, just ’cause it was around. The printer crapped out midway, as you see in this banding. Here, we tried applying gesso to see if it would brighten the colors. At one point, someone dropped the piece and two corners broke off, so I cut it into this half-moon shape. We made these wooden triangles to hide some other cracks. I’d had this vision of these weird triple glasses, and the half-moon was the perfect shape to test them. The works are all tests and adaptations to changing conditions, but some leave the studio.
Rail: It’s as if you’re continuously pushing the system to failure—that printer broke because you fed it a thing it wasn’t designed to process. You put things into a system, and the emotive part, or the part that’s random, that comes out of chance, is actually a result of a system failing.
Price: Not always. All those printed edges of the “Calendar Paintings” came about because, in Photoshop, I kept shoving rejected elements outside the edges of the work area. When I went to print, I realized I needed some bleed, for wrapping the sides of the stretcher, so I enlarged the work area. And all the rejected stuff was hiding there! The program had saved it. It was like a conspiracy between the technological production of the image and the material production of the object.
Rail: I read somewhere that collectors would come into your studio and not even notice the paintings on the walls. They thought they were just calendars you had up. Were they that seamless with the visual environment?
Price: One guy, yeah. It was the thing in the blind spot. It’s not so crude that it looks like an artistic celebration of vulgarity, and it’s not high-end enough to be an exploitation of design or taste. It was more like a subway ad. At least, it was in 2004. Now they’re different. Now they go with the décor at the matcha shop down the block.
Rail: It’s strange how quickly the contemporary recedes, and stranger when it comes back as pastiche. I don’t think you exhibited those “Calendar Paintings” when you made them. Why not? You had your first solo show, at Reena Spaulings, right around that time.
Price: I don’t know, and now when I look back I think, what an idiot. Partly it was because people expected me to show them. But I did that with a bunch of things. I showed a bomber jacket in Greater New York and then I never did a gallery show with them. Same with the “Mylar” pieces, no solo show. With the “Calendar Paintings,” I should have just chilled out and gone a little deeper, rather than have some restless feeling that they’re so last season or whatever. I’ve learned you have to repeat yourself to be seen at all. I made the light boxes in 2015, but several curators who saw the PS1 show kept calling it my “new work.” It took three years and four big exhibitions for people to notice them.
Rail: I’m curious if your occasional use of graphic imagery is also ambiguous—apart from Digital Video Effect: “Holes,” (2003) which uses photographic documentation of gruesome deaths, in 2002 through 2006 you made videos using Jihadi imagery.
Price: I wanted to see how you could you use that material, how you could bring it into art. The first place I investigated the Jihadist videos was the “Dispersion” essay, and then it found its way into the sculptures in the Reena show as encoded files on discs, as hidden information. You knew it was there, but you couldn’t see it unless you bought a CD for ten dollars. I wanted you to have to put it in your computer, which was perverse, or redundant. You could see it online; you didn’t have to buy it in a gallery.
Rail: So your interest in these two video effects were not really technological, political, or cinematic, then?
Price: It was a challenge. How can I subject this content to something supposedly neutral? And I know that none of it actually is, and that there’s a perversion to that. In the case of the “Spills” video, you just want to see the film, you don’t want to see what some artist has done to it. You want to see Smithson talk about the art market in this unguarded way. And because this archival footage is art historical, it’s bulletproof. It’s not art, even though it’s artists talking about art, filmed by an artist, being used in another work of art. But it is still somehow not art! It resists that. With the spill transition, I was thinking about that era—Serra splashing lead and Smithson pouring asphalt down a hill. And because I showed it horizontally, I had to think about that history in painting. I had captured the spills by placing a piece of glass horizontally with the video camera under it and pouring paint onto the glass—
Rail: As in Hans Namuth’s Pollock Painting.
Price: Yeah. And then I digitally removed the paint and applied that absence over Joan’s footage.
Rail: But your videos do also seem to be a way of drawing out something hidden within these content-agnostic effects, maybe something political or something that could be read politically. In the case of “Holes,” you’re literally puncturing holes in the pictures of people who died violent deaths. Is it really a mistake to read into the mirroring effect between what you’ve applied to the video and what the video actually portrays?
Price: I know what you mean, but I thought of them as playing with the form of digital video. I don’t want to say I’m showing a process of manipulation in a grander sense, but if this is a demonstration of manipulation, then that’s embedded. You have to tell yourself tall tales in order to make work.
Rail: Those images of beheadings eventually made their way to the “Mylar” works, so you kept with them for one reason or another.
Price: By 2005, I thought maybe I have to use this image I’ve been investigating all these other ways. But I still wasn’t interested in just showing it. That kind of thing was obviously done well by Warhol and Cady Noland, and then any number of artists in the early 2000s who were screen-printing provocative media images onto a substrate—celebrity and anti-celebrity icons, mostly. The beheading image felt different. It’s an anonymous subject in an executioner’s mask, a snuff film, and it was part of a whole new way of circulating images—different from Noland’s newswire images or Warhol’s magazine cutouts. It marked a different era.
Rail: So the way you distorted the Mylar, making the image essentially unreadable—that wasn’t a way of getting around the provocation of the violent politicized image?
Price: When I was making the “Mylars,” the phenomenon of Jihadi beheading videos was very new and unsettled, and it was a question of how to make art with such complex material. I felt ambivalent about using it, which made me want to do it. I’m drawn to things where I have to figure out how I stand in relation to them, where it feels uncomfortable, where there’s real negotiation. My own ambivalence, my need to work with resistance, hopefully comes through in the work. But to do that, you have to figure out how to reflect it formally. Crumpled, clear plastic felt right. It was like scrolls, film stock, screens, trash. I also liked that you can see every part of the image. In a sense, there’s nothing hidden. But you can only get it by moving your body around. Visually, you don’t have that mastery of it that you would over a flat image. You can’t put it together from single-point perspective. But you can grasp exactly what’s been done: this is a flat thing that was distorted topographically into a volume. So the physical material was bound up in that.
Rail: The other day we talked about this idea that a digital image is a composite of information material, and so the way it is packaged, manipulated, or compressed can represent a kind of politics or ethics.
Price: Yes, but it’s always complex and open, even something that seems explicitly ideological. I hate moralizing. That’s what appeals to me about situating things at a crossroads where they can rub up against different things, open in different directions. I do get criticism for a lack of commitment, or refusing to take a position.
Rail: And refusing to be understood? When you embrace that ambiguity, people want to pin you down even more, especially when your texts can be misread as manifestos and your videos can be misread as ethical explorations of the digital image environment or whatever. To insist on an ambiguity, to a certain categorical-minded thinker, that can seem evasive.
Price: Yeah, I see that. You know, a few years ago, I realized that it can be helpful to accept criticisms as basically valid. So I totally concede that. The interesting thing is, by the same token I’d have to agree, yes, I’m also politically provocative, and a formalist, and a conceptualist, and a market artist. Maybe if you just keep saying “and, and, and” to the stories people tell, it makes things weirder.
Rail: I noticed that you have more works hanging on the wall than last time I was here. Is your exhibition coming together?
Price: Oh, yeah. I put those up to try and understand them.
Rail: What led you to these new works? What were you thinking about, doing, and feeling that brought you here?
Price: That’s a hard question to answer, because it’s always one thing morphing into another. I can’t remember which came first, the interest in skin or the interest in extreme resolution at large scale, and why it became a light box. I was researching this now-extinct category of Tumblr. Some years back, there were these Tumblrs where there’d be a cascade of images that drew on fashion, bodies, military, products, apocalypse. Often the bodies were drastically augmented, either with prosthetics, or surgery, or extreme garments, or military hardware that was adapted for wearability. There was something very dystopian and sci-fi, at the same time as being wide-eyed and almost nostalgic for nineties tech culture.
Rail: The era of cyborg cinema.
Price: Inflected with fashion and sports. Like, a techy mesh fabric designed for some extreme application, but you wear it to the mall. This whole confluence of different attitudes and pictures. I may have seen squids on there. I do know there’s military clothing that tries to mimic the squid’s natural camouflage technology, and I’ve been interested in military clothing going back to the bomber jacket and Folklore U.S. Mostly I was just trying to understand a feeling. I started making collages to try to understand what this feeling was, to use it. I was trying to situate myself in relation to this thing. Eventually all of that led to the skin photography.
Rail: Can you talk a little bit about how your different skin works were made?
Price: The light boxes and the Social Synth video both use the same imaging process. You get an image with a huge amount of data. The video is based on a single image of a seven-inch-square squid, but at 300 DPI the photo would print out thirteen feet high. They’re dye-sub transferred to a synthetic fabric that Apple developed for their light boxes. I don’t want to make too much of the Apple thing, it’s not something I intended to build into the project. It just turns out that Apple developed a very good substrate. It has a tighter weave, it’s slinkier and wrinkle-proof, and the color temperature is pleasing. Of course, you could say it’s more pleasing because I’ve been conditioned by Apple.
Rail: How about the light boxes you’ll show at Petzel? How do they relate to those at PS1?
Price: They come out of that same skin data, but it’s a new approach. I turned the image black and white, and they’re embroidered with the phrase “New York City.” I was thinking about tourist merch and about how much fashion relies on words right now. There are long threads hanging out of the letters. It’s this visceral feeling of organs or hair, or the text is weeping.
Rail: Some of the paintings—if I can call them that—in this show also make use of photographs you’ve made, which is somewhat new for you.
Price: Yes. And also CGI. I started by making objects in the computer last fall, just modeling shapes. I was after two categories of things. The first was an organic form, somewhere between hard and soft, like cartilage. The other was hard objects, indeterminate substances, use or function unknown. We wound up with a lot of objects that look a little like jewelry, a little like weaponry, a little like tools or hardware, a bit medical.
Rail: I first thought of an x-ray scan at the airport.
Price: I was collecting photos where you have an accidental composition of objects on a flat, neutral backdrop, with no overlap. An airport tray with personal effects, or a tray with silverware, a toilet top covered with makeup, dental tools, a forensic tray with bomb remnants, or bone shards that archeologists have laid out. It’s something about a clinical, scientific overview coupled with the intimacy of a bedside table full of lipstick and pillboxes.
Rail: And then you’ve poured a polymer over the surface, which disrupts the shapes.
Price: The chemicals rip apart the image, and you wind up with abstracted images where shapes have run off, pooled, or been obliterated. Then we photograph that and put it back in the computer, generate algorithmic patterns around the pours, and print that on top. This pattern is Voronoi noise. It’s this stupid networked look that’s become popular in contemporary design, furniture, and clothing. Lululemon uses it. Cambridge Analytica used it in their logo. I hate the discussion of networks, I wish it would never happen again. Once we have the computer populate the painting with noise, it actually fucks it up. Whenever you give a computer something to do, it fucks it up. Which is why we love computers.
Rail: Because they’re imperfect?
Price: Or they’re perfect at doing what we want them to do, and we’re the fuck-ups. All this stuff is hopefully not too evident. I don’t want people to think about the labor or production processes. I never wanted people to look at the “Silhouettes” and understand how fucking annoying it is to unite plastic and wood. I wanted it to look like that process always existed, maybe in the world of design and furniture.
Rail: You want that sense of seamlessness, like it’s a natural material.
Price: Yeah. Though most people don’t in fact consider the specifics of production. That’s how all the pre-existing stories creep in. Somebody was in the studio recently and asked, “Did you download that photo?” I know she thought that because I’ve worked with the internet. She brings that to the work. But, like most people, I just took the photo.
Rail: Have you used your own photos in your artworks before?
Price: The light boxes are photographs. I want to resist posing them as a conceptual or technological project. It’s crazy photography. No one’s doing photography like that. But maybe the fact that they’re not so far considered photography is a good thing. It’s interesting to think about why they settle into one category or another.
Rail: I suspect at least a degree of it has to do with the text on the wall, what that talks about, and the aspect of the work that it emphasizes.
Price: That’s why at PS1 I was agitating for as little text as possible. I understand the museum has a responsibility to a broad audience, but I lose patience with the focus on technology or process as a way to answer the question of meaning. In the end, it’s about the experience of being a body in that space, not about musing on satellite-mapping software or big data. People make a fetish of that stuff.
Rail: You told me the other day you were trying to think of this show as a painting show, but none of these works could strictly be called paintings. What did you mean by that?
Price: In the sense of presenting self-contained images hanging on a wall. I mean, come on, every artist has got to be envious of canvas painters. Really.
Rail: Why? Because they’re afforded more freedom?
Price: So awesome. On every level. Like, oil paint is just such a hardy substance, for example. It survives on the substrate, it’s not fragile. And you’re dealing with images, and who doesn’t want to just deal with images? Mmm. Painter. That’s an identity. It’s like belonging to a thousand-year-old guild.
Rail: I think canvas painters probably face a version of the thing that frustrates you. All these mind-numbing questions like, “How can one continue to paint with oil in the twenty-first century?” And being forced to answer that ad nauseum or bring it into their work.
Price: Yeah, somebody recently said these works were about capitalism. I don’t even know what that means—to be “about” something. Aren’t oil paintings today about capitalism? I mean, whatever. If you’re a painter, you’re still trying to make good art, it’s not like it’s any easier. I’d just rather give things back a lack of resolution. Wouldn’t that be a relief? To go back to being a body confronted with a feeling?
Rail: Do you have an idea of what this feeling is that you want to evoke?
Rail: Is there anything more to say about that?
Price: Ideally, it would be something you couldn’t resolve in language.
WILL FENSTERMAKER is associate editor of the ArtSeen section of the Brooklyn Rail and digital editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He holds an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts.