Artists Among Us
Minisodes feature brief conversations about artworks and events in and around the Whitney. In these 5–10 minute episodes we explore top-of-mind art and ideas and what is happening now at the Museum.
The series is ongoing.
Ilana Savdie and Carmen Maria Machado on trickery, horror, and the uncanny
On the occasion of her Whitney exhibition and as part of the Whitney's public programming, artist Ilana Savdie invited writer Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties and In the Dream House, to discuss their respective practices. In this excerpt from that program Savdie and Machdo discuss their overlapping interests, from power dynamics mediated through the body to trickery as a form of resistance. The conversation is moderated by Whitney Curator Marcela Guerrero and the exhibition Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions is on view through November 5, 2023.
Released October 28, 2023
Minisode: Ilana Savdie and Carmen Maria Machado on trickery, horror, and the uncanny
Minisode: Ilana Savdie and Carmen Maria Machado on trickery, horror, and the uncanny
Narrator: Welcome to Artists Among Us minisodes from the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following recording is an abbreviated conversation from a public program that took place on July 24, 2023 at the Whitney between artist Ilana Savdie and writer Carmen Maria Machado. The talk was moderated by Whitney Curator Marcela Guerrero on the occasion of the exhibition Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions. To view the artworks referenced in the discussion, please visit whitney.org/ilanasavdie. Savdie and Machado speak about a range of subjects including trickery, horror, and the uncanny—fitting topics for the month of October!—and how they wield them as forms of resistance.
Marcela Guerrero: So I thought that perhaps we could start with a pretty basic question that might be on the minds of everyone, which is: how did the two of you meet and what sparked this moment that we are living right now?
Ilana Savdie: I had read In the Dream House and fell in love with it and was in the process of working on a series of three paintings for my last show. And I started reading “The Husband Stitch,” and there was a specific moment in that story—the main character gets what is called the "husband stitch" which is an additional stitch given to women against their will. There's a really horrific, very unsettling moment in the story where the doctor casually goes, “it is nice and tight, everyone is happy.” I was working on these paintings dealing with the kind of horror of being on an operating table or the horror of being in a performative state like that. And so the three paintings were titled after “The Husband Stitch,” one is called Nice and tight y todos felices—all three were titled after that piece. Yeah. So I think from there.
Carmen Maria Machado: It was a story that I had heard from my aunt who was an OB/GYN nurse many many years ago. It was horrifying and it really stuck with me that husbands would make this joke when women were getting stitches after childbirth and they would say, “put an extra stitch in there to make it tighter.” And I was like, “well that’s the most horrifying thing I have ever heard in my entire life,” and she was like, “oh ya, they call it a husband stitch.” And I was like, “no, that’s the most horrifying thing that I have heard in my entire life.”
The story is weird because—I call it my hit single. It is the story of mine that people have read the most and referenced the most. It was fascinating to see it have this sort of impact in various places. Then, of course, to see these phrases pulled out—unstitched if you will—from the story and used as colorful paintings that have these organic, unsettling, uncanny shapes in them. It was a really beautiful and interesting experience to see that transformation.
Guerrero: At what point did you feel, Ilana, that you wanted to delve and dig into aspects of the body?
Savdie: I have always been drawn to things that delve into both the ideas around existence and having a body—the audacity of it, the offensiveness of having a body and the offensiveness of taking up space with it. A huge point of reference for me has been—I grew up in Colombia, which is home to the Carnival of Colombia. A four day event where four days before Lent the entire country basically comes to a Barranquilla and delves into this reversal, complete reversal of social norms and it’s a huge festivity.
I have always been drawn to the Marimonda. This figure comes from the combination of a monkey and an elephant and behaves like a monkey. And has this trickster quality of being vulgar and perverse and offensive but also bringing the joy of the Carnival. I have always been drawn to it in terms of its uncanny qualities and phallic quality. But it also has this history I discovered upon researching it. It is part of a costume meant to mock an oppressive elite. It mocked politicians, the upper class.
The idea of the trickster as an agent of change has always been interesting and the idea of humor as a mode of resistance and as a mode of inversion has always been interesting. I root in a really Queer form of resistance through exaggerating the body—and mimicry as a form of transgression. And so I kind of locate that back into the work.
Guerrero: Another agent that makes an appearance are different parasites. If you have seen the show, you have seen the protagonist role that one specific parasite has in the show. Do you want to speak to that?
Savdie: I like to find parallels between the trickster and folklore and the trickster in nature. And the behaviors of the parasite are, by nature, very trickstery. The sort of body-snatcher aspect of entering into a host and forcing it to change. The parasite is an agent of change and that feels like a trickster quality. That was always interesting as a concept. Then looking into them visually, there are so many different kinds. I think something that these paintings have been able to do is seduce through color and texture and force the viewer to look at something that they may not want to look at—in this case a disgusting parasite.
Savdie: There is a word in Spanish, empalagoso, which I think in English “cloying” is the closest. But it is this excess of sweetness and sugar to the point of disgust. I think that place before it gets to disgust is exactly what I seek in colors. For me, this work has become about modes of seduction and finding a way to draw you in to look at something that isn't quite as beautiful or pleasant as you might expect.
Guerrero: Can we also go back to something that you mentioned when you were talking about “The Husband Stitch”— I think I see in both of your works these bodies that are unresolved. They are excessive in some ways. How do you see your work as expanding discourses around the body?
Machado: I am thinking about an essay I wrote a few years ago. I was interested in writing about the fat body and fatness. Eventually I began to think about fat bodies as volume and fatness as an expression of literally demanding more space and cleaving the air more than somebody who is less fat. And I was finding a lot of references. I had been reading the Shirley Jackson biography from a few years ago. There was this horrible line—the biography was wonderful—but in an interview the woman said she was so fat she took up half of the couch but so charming at parties that people hardly noticed. What if the fatness is a part of the expression of this artist and the person that existed in the world? To me those feel inextricable from each other. And bigness, excess, opulence—that is something to be embraced and revered and not feared and shied away from whether speaking about a piece of art or a piece of writing or a person's body.
And I wrote “Eight Bites” and I was thinking about a woman who gets gastric bypass surgery, loses a bunch of weight, and then this ghost of the body that she lost is haunting her in her own home. And she beats it and at some point she tries to kill it. And it is really sad and horrible. When she dies years later the thing that comes to take her away is the body that she lost. I feel like there is, for me, something about the body that feels ungovernable. Capitalism resists it ya know. But it insists upon itself and demands things and I find that beautiful and interesting.
Savdie: I want to say something about “Eight Bites.” You had this one line: “I couldn't make my body…”
Machado: “I couldn't make eight bites work for my body, so I made my body work for eight bites.”
Savdie: I think about that all the time. Sometimes your words come out of my mouth when I try to explain something. That is one of them. I come from Colombia which in general is one of the places with the most constricting beauty standards. There is a lot of talk about la cirugía, the surgery. “Just get the surgery. Put these little boundaries around your organs so that you can make sense in this space.” And I was like I am just going to make ten-foot paintings instead. It makes me want to make bigger paintings and take up more space. There are moments when we were talking about the audacity of my making these huge paintings and putting them in the Whitney. And how dare I! I have these moments of anxiety and stress about it. At the end of the day, it is the only way to understand. The paintings are made to the proportions of my own body. So I can use all of my joints to make them, as angry as that makes my joints.
Machado: I feel like there is related discourse about who gets to write giant fat novels or books that are a million pages long. And I love the idea of something that becomes so big but you are demanding something because it is also so excellent.
Greil Marcus on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
On the occasion of Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith we spoke to Greil Marcus, acclaimed music author, journalist, and critic, about the reverberations felt around the world after the 1952 release of Harry Smith's highly influential multivolume Anthology of American Folk Music. "It was a sensibility—this set that Harry Smith created—that was passed on to people. Where it said to them, 'There's more in this music. There's more in this country than you ever imagined, so seek and ye shall find.'"
Released September 27, 2023
Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith and an accompanying Anthology of American Folk Music playlist.
Minisode: Greil Marcus on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
Minisode: Greil Marcus on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
Greil Marcus: My name is Greil Marcus. I've written books that take in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, one called Invisible Republic that was later called The Old, Weird America. It's been a subject of fascination for me for more than fifty years.
Harry Smith was a man of many parts, many talents, many fields, many adventures. He was a folklorist. He collected commercially released recordings of American folk songs from the twenties, thirties, and forties.He did most of that collecting in Seattle and Berkeley, where he lived in the forties after the war—had a little apartment and scoured the Bay Area for records. He ended up with over 20,000 78s that he kept in a tiny little apartment that he later shipped to New York when he moved.
He wanted to put together a collection of the most interesting, the most gripping, and strange of all the recordings he'd collected that would paint a picture of the United States of America different from one people had ever seen before, through eighty-four records recorded between 1926 and 1934 and released by commercial record companies to sell to markets in the South, to sell to rural white people, to sell to Black people, blues records, string band music, records to sell to Cajun communities in Louisiana ...
This was a burgeoning market all through the twenties that was wiped out by the Great Depression. Records cost from fifty to seventy-five cents. You could feed a family for a week on seventy-five cents after 1929. Harry Smith, in a sense, drew a new map of America and some of the landmarks through the songs that he collected and that he presented in strange sequences that made sense at first only to him and later made sense to millions of people. There were presidential assassinations, there was the sinking of the Titanic, there was pestilence, there were famous train crashes. All kinds of things that were really part of the history of the United States, but sung by strange voices with words describing these shared events in ways that had never been heard before, whether they were sarcastic, whether they were sardonic, whether they were, in a sense, almost celebrating tragedies.
Harry Smith put this together to say to the country, to say to posterity, "There's more to America than you ever suspected. There are different kinds of people than those you've ever met. There are different kinds of people hiding inside people you have met. You don't really know this country, and I'm going to show it to you.”
I came across it in 1970 in a record store. I didn't know what it was. It looked interesting. I took it home. I began to play it. About ninety percent of it made no sense to me at all. It was just the strangest people and the strangest voices. I hadn't heard of anybody who was singing on these records. But there were two or three that struck me so hard, Bascom Lamar Lunsford's I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground was the first. Who wants to be a mole in the ground? Why would you want to be a mole, the most loathsome and disgusting creature on earth? This is what I want to be. What is this about?
That opened the door. I think that would happen to anybody who comes across this production, this art statement, this remapping of America. There will be one or two songs amidst all the strange landscape that you will say, "Who is that? What's that? What's happening here? I have to know." It won't be the song that reached me. It will be something that reaches you that would never have reached me, so this is a polyglot of voices. This is a chorus of people who haven't met, singing in all different directions all at once.
This set, which was originally called just American Folk Music, was issued as three sets of double LPs, two LPs that were called "Ballads," many traditional songs going back to England and Scotland that had been changed in their journey to and through America. Many American-born songs, but they tell stories. Then, there was a two-LP set called "Social Music," which was religious music, dance music, community music, sermons, preaching, dances, minstrel skits. Then there was a two-LP set, called "Songs." These were the kinds of songs, whether they were blues, whether they were what were then called hillbilly songs, where people spoke in the first-person, where they said, "This happened to me, this is my story."
It changed music in the sixties because all kinds of musicians, or people who weren't yet musicians but later would become musicians, began to hear these songs. A musician's instinct when they hear a song that moves them, that strikes them, that makes them wonder what it is and how it works is to play it, is to play it for yourself to see if you can make it come out in your own voice and be different—become something that you can say, "I put this into the world too. This song is putting me into the world."
That happened with Bob Dylan, it happened with Jerry Garcia, and other people who ended up creating the Grateful Dead. It happened with hundreds of Greenwich Village folk singers and folk singers around the country. People learned these songs as if they were a Bible, and because it was like a Bible, they had to spread the word. It wasn't just that musicians then, in the 1960s and ever since, have taken these songs and sung them and recorded them and let other people hear them. It was a sensibility—this set that Harry Smith created—that was passed on to people. Where it said to them, "There's more in this music. There's more in this country than you ever imagined, so seek and ye shall find. Go out looking."
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith on her Whitney Retrospective
"The maps that I've been doing, I see them as landscapes and they all tell stories." Hear from artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b. 1940, citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation) on the occasion of her Whitney retrospective, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map on view through August 13, 2023.
Released June 23, 2023
Minisode: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith on her Whitney Retrospective
Minisode: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith on her Whitney Retrospective
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Yes it is like that—fall down the stairs and land on my feet. That is how it is. I think I am a pretty lucky person, a lucky duck.
My name is an old family name. It doesn't have anything to do with art. It is not about seeing art it is about insight. I've been making art as far back as I can remember. When I was in the first grade I didn't know the word artist, I had never heard that word. I didn't know anything about it. I just knew that it was my zone—I wanted to be where I could use those materials.
The maps that I've been doing, I see them as landscapes and they all tell stories. My art practice has grown over the years. I always see my works as inhabited landscapes. From early pastel abstract swaths of color to where we are now, even figures, to me it is still landscape.
We are in Corrales, New Mexico which is north of Albuquerque. Corrales is a small farm community of about 15,000 people. This land was given to Spanish people who grew vineyards here. It was given to them by the King of Spain they like to say but, of course, it is unceded land. And of course it once belonged to Pueblo people. Anytime people dig in their backyard here they dig up doubloons and tin cups and underneath that they dig up pottery shards and house foundations. So this has been a farm community probably for eons of time.
Native peoples have always studied the flora, fauna, and land here. It is a culmination of figuring out where we came from. All of the origin stories are about that. These stories go back 15,000 years and they match what the scientists are saying about the movement of glaciers. And that is extraordinary, it blows my mind to think that our oral history goes back that far.
Our Indian elders studied it so well. Their knowledge of it is so complete. They are always looking back and asking what would the ancestors do? What would they say? We have to think about our future generations and if these resources will be here to serve them. Will our tribe be able to support them? And so how can we get some of these messages out there? Part of it is in the work that I do.
Being Indigenous and making art means that you are looking at the world through lenses that are curved or changed by your upbringing and by your worldview as an Indigenous person. We get together and talk amongst ourselves about how we can change things or make things better—how we can put messages out there that have a relationship to the Indigenous world. Indigenous peoples believe that we live in harmony with all of the plants, animals, fishes, and cosmos. We really do believe that. So that's the first thing that is really distinct in our work and in what we present to the public.
Who has a better reason to paint a map? Me, a Native person who is all about the land and the history that's taken place here. How can I tell it all in a way that is different from what you learned in school? I'm showing you an American map; I'm putting my heritage in there. I take newspaper clippings and put them in every single state just to prove that there are Indians doing things there. Yes, there is Indian life there. Yes, they live everywhere all over the United States. When I started using text it seemed like a way to say something directly instead of just alluding to it—whether it be text from old Indian speeches or headlines from the New York Times or Albuquerque Journal.
What I am doing is putting messages inside the Museum, inside the corporate world where they are not supposed to be. It is where you are supposed to make nice and entertain people with money. That is kind of a given. And I am going to the source. They will find things about the environment, racism, and the treatment of animals.
People walk through a museum and they are drawn to what they are drawn to whether it is color or figures. Some people stop and take the time to read things but not everyone wants to do that. The messages in my paintings are placed where they are not totally expected.
Most people will never have heard of me and that is not off-putting. Maybe it will start to crack this issue of Native Americans being invisible. Most people say, "I've never met an Indian, I've never seen one before." That is pretty prominent. There are a bunch of Indians living in New York who encounter this. That is how it goes in this society. This is high society and it is white. And this is BIPOC here; we are just little grains of sand trying to make a little change.
I just move forward and do what I know how to do and what I am teaching myself to do because I am constantly learning new things. It is about growing no matter my age. Am I engaged with my practice? I would say I am right now and I take advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate that. But time is fleeting and we don't know where things will be ten years from now. So I don't concentrate on that; I just concentrate on making work that I think counts for something.
Queer History Walk
The neighborhood that the Whitney now occupies once provided a place to find and create queer community. This minisode pays tribute to the sites where people seeking sexual freedom once gathered to connect, relax, party, and organize.
For more about the queer history of the Meatpacking District, check out the full audio tour.
Released June 5, 2023
Camilo Godoy, Whitney Educator
Minisode: Queer History Walking Tour
Minisode: Queer History Walking Tour
Camilo Godoy: In this minisode of the Artists Among Us podcast, I'll be sharing a few highlights from the Whitney's queer history walk. The full tour is available as a Museum audio guide, and often on summer Friday evenings, you can take a guided tour in person too. Just check whitney.org for dates and times.
Hello, my name is Camilo Godoy and I'm one of the Educators at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This queer history walk takes place near the Whitney Museum, located in Lenapehoking, the ancestral homeland of the Lenape. It’s close to the land that was a Lenape fishing and planting site called the Sapokanikan or tobacco field.
This queer history walk covers different sites that were important for the development of queer community. In this neighborhood, dominated by industrial life as well as the meatpacking industry, there were very few homes and very few people lived here.
Across the highway would have been Pier 52. Built in the early twentieth century, piers that stretched from downtown Manhattan to midtown Manhattan, during the period of the 1960s and 1970s, were left abandoned due to the financial crisis of New York City. These dilapidated infrastructures became the site for artists and queer people to make art, to live, to have sex, and enjoy themselves.
Underneath Miller's Expressway, trucks would be lined up and parked. The backs of the truck trailers would be left open for ventilation because during the day they transported meat across New York City. The truck trailers were used in the evenings by people seeking sexual contact. The act of cruising, or inviting a person into a sexual encounter, is described in the book written by Samuel Delany, The Motion of Light and Water. He describes his discovery of the trucks in the 1950s as both betraying the stereotype of gay people living in isolation, but rather engaging in collective public sex. In the darkness of this space, in anonymity, many people who were in the closet or not out would come to celebrate their sexual desires and the possibilities of sexual politics.
So as hundreds of people gathered in this neighborhood, different venues for sexual expression emerged in this period, such as the Mineshaft. Located on the corner of Washington Street and Little West 12th Street, the Mineshaft was an S&M private sex club started in 1976. It catered to a very specific segment of the gay community specifically in highlighting the culture known as the clone type, in which gay men wore boots, leather, jeans, and tight shirts to address their masculinity.
The Mineshaft—in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis—became a site for sexual education and information. Unfortunately, with the homophobic health codes of this period, places like the Mineshaft were shut down in order for the city to control the spread of the HIV virus, impeding the dissemination of sexual education at this venue.
The same year in which the Mineshaft was closed, Florent became a thriving food, party, and dance space for the community in this neighborhood. Opened in 1985 by the artist and French immigrant Florent Morellet, this 24-hour restaurant served food for the various communities of the neighborhood, from workers in the meatpacking industry to people leaving the sex clubs to people headed to the piers.
The marquee signs at the top of the counter were used to address contemporary queer politics of the 1980s as well as his own lived experience as a person living with HIV. The menu included jokes related to war, political slogans, as well as Florent's T-cell count. Seeing the numbers 235 would indicate to patrons of the restaurant that Florent was not doing very well. Florent used his business to destigmatize people living with HIV and AIDS.
Just north is a building where a party called the Clit Club was hosted. Started in 1990, this party catered to a thriving queer community of women of color that saw the Clit Club as a party for celebration and for artmaking. On many of the monitors in the Clit Club, lesbian porn would have been presented and photographs by different artists displayed. In the basement of this building, a stairway led to a dark room where a pool table was located and sexual play took place. The Clit Club was a site for the celebration of queer women of color, but also the dissemination of AIDS activism in the early stages of the AIDS crisis.
The sites in this queer history walk are the closest to the Museum. However, we are in a neighborhood that holds the memory of many aspects of queer history, identity, and belonging.
Paseo por la Historia Queer
El barrio que hoy ocupa el Whitney fue en su día un lugar de encuentro y creación de comunidad queer. Este miniepisodio rinde homenaje a los lugares donde las personas que buscaban la libertad sexual se reunían para relacionarse, relajarse, salir de fiesta y organizarse.
Para más información sobre la historia queer del Meatpacking District, consulte la audioguía completa.
Publicado el 16 de junio de 2023
Camilo Godoy, Educador del Whitney
Miniepisodio: Paseo por la Historia Queer
Miniepisodio: Paseo por la Historia Queer
Camilo Godoy: En este mini episodio del podcast, Artists Among Us [Artistas entre nosotres], resaltaré parte del recorrido de la historia queer cerca del museo Whitney. El recorrido completo está disponible como una audioguía del Museo, y en el verano, en ciertos viernes por la noche, puedes participar en un recorrido guiado en persona. Consulta whitney.org para las fechas y horarios.
Hola, mi nombre es Camilo Godoy y soy uno de los educadores del museo Whitney de arte americano.
Estaremos caminando alrededor del museo Whitney que se encuentra en Lenapehoking, la tierra ancestral de los lenape. En este recorrido, vamos a cubrir sitios que fueron importantes para el desarrollo de la comunidad queer.
Una gran parte de esta historia de la comunidad LGBT en Nueva York, tomó lugar cerca de donde estamos parados, en este barrio dominado por la vida industrial, por los pares marítimos, así como la industria de empacadores de carne. Había muy pocos hogares y muy poca gente vivía acá.
Al otro lado de la carretera, estaba el muelle 52. Los muelles fueron construidos a principios del siglo, se extendían desde el bajo Manhattan hasta el mediado de la isla. Y durante los años 70 quedaron abandonados debido a la crisis financiera de la ciudad de Nueva York. Estas infraestructuras en ruinas se convirtieron en el sitio para que artistas y personas de la comunidad LGBT hicieran arte, vivieran, tuvieran sexo y se divirtieran.
La carretera elevada Miller’s Expressway fue derrumbada en los años 70, durante el colapso financiero de la economía. Camiones de la industria de las carnicerías estarían parqueados debajo de esta carretera. Las puertas traseras de estos camiones se dejaban abiertas en las noches para que se pudieran ventilar. En esta época, el estereotipo homofóbico designó que los hombres homosexuales vivían en la invisibilidad y aislados. Los camiones se convirtieron en un lugar donde el contacto sexual en público era posible.
Mientras cientos de personas se reunían en este barrio para expresar sus deseos sexuales en público y en anonimato, diferentes establecimientos abrieron sus puertas para la expresión sexual, incluyendo el Mineshaft, ubicado en la esquina de Washington Street y Little West Twelfth Street. El Mineshaft era un club de sexo privado, de S&M, que representaba una forma muy particular para representar la identidad gay, específicamente el tipo de clone, una estética en la cual el hombre gay utilizaba botas, jeans, pantalones de cuero y camisas ajustadas para abordar su masculinidad. El Mineshaft fue cerrado durante la crisis del VIH/SIDA por códigos de salud homofóbicos que en este periodo cerraron muchos establecimientos homosexuales. Antes de su clausura, este club fue el lugar donde la educación sexual fue distribuida.
El mismo año en que el Mineshaft cerró, Florent se convirtió en un lugar para la comida, la fiesta, el baile en este barrio. El artista francés inmigrante Florent Morellet abrió un restaurante de 24 horas para servir comida a las diferentes comunidades que utilizaban este barrio; desde trabajadores de la industria de las carnes a las personas que estaban saliendo de los clubs de sexo, que se estaban dirigiendo a los muelles. Los letreros en la parte superior del comedor largo fueron utilizados para abarcar temas políticos contemporáneos de los 80 y también para explicar su experiencia como una persona que estaba viviendo con VIH. El menú incluía el conteo de células-T de Florent. Florent utilizó su negocio para desestigmatizar a las personas que viven con VIH/SIDA.
A unos pasos del Florent está un edificio donde la fiesta Clit Club tomó lugar. Esta fiesta celebraba las identidades de las mujeres lesbianas de color. Dentro del club monitores de televisión presentaban porno lésbico y colgaban en las paredes fotografías de diferentes artistas. Las escaleras en el primer piso te llevaban al sótano del edificio donde había un cuarto oscuro con una mesa de billar y donde mucho del juego sexual tomaba lugar. Fotografías hechas por la artista documentan la pujante escena artística de las diferentes personas que hacían de esta fiesta.
Los lugares en este recorrido, de la historia de la comunidad, son los más cercanos al museo. Sin embargo, estamos en un barrio que guarda la memoria de muchos aspectos de la historia, la identidad y la pertenencia de la comunidad LGBT.
Rose B. Simpson on Counterculture
“They are watching, they show us, they embody, they personify the inanimate that our modern culture often forgets is constantly witnessing us.” In this minisode Rose B. Simpson discusses Counterculture, five watchful figures on view on the Whitney's Floor 5 terrace.
This minisode is also included on the Whitney's Audio Guide.
Released June 2, 2023
Rose B. Simpson
Minisode: Rose B. Simpson on Counterculture, 2022
Minisode: Rose B. Simpson on Counterculture, 2022
Rose B. Simpson: My name is Rose B. Simpson, and I'm from Santa Clara Pueblo in Northern New Mexico, where I live and work on my ancestral homelands with my six-year-old daughter.
This iteration of Counterculture is five of the original twelve large-scale figurative pieces that are made to witness. They're made out of cast cement and they actually have handmade clay beads. And one of the most important features about these pieces is that they have eyes that are drilled all the way through the head. And so, they are standing as witnesses for the inanimate. They are watching, they show us, they embody, they personify the inanimate that our modern culture often forgets is constantly witnessing us.
It could be the natural world, it could be ancestral beings, it could be supernatural things. It could be the wind, it could be clouds, it could be weather, it could be the parts of our world that we don't necessarily consider conscious and aware of our movement and decisions as post-modern beings.
The holes that go through the heads where the eyes are, you might notice light coming through, you might see the wind pass through. I think that's an important thing. When I was drilling the holes through the head, the dust was blowing. As soon as the bit went through to the other side, the wind would come and the dust would blow out, and it was this incredible moment of allowing. I broke through to the other side, feeling almost inter-dimensionally.
You might notice fingerprints in the clay beads. You might notice relics of animal interaction with the pieces, maybe birds have found a place to perch or rest. We might see rust, we might see moss, we might see moments where the pieces have been in place and will grow in relationship to place and transform because of place. And I think we begin to notice how place begins to affect everything that we're trying to control. In a sense, we're in collaboration with and not in a controlling state of nature and our relationship to it.
I've been thinking a lot about empowerment. Empowerment in the past has always been very masculine centered for me, and I've looked towards a warrior mentality to feel empowered. And more recently, especially since becoming a parent, I have found a lot of power in the feminine or that which is self-aware and self-adorned, and that putting a necklace on or taking a moment to adorn oneself with grace is actually an incredible sense of empowerment.
And so, the necklaces are not warrior-making, but they're objects of empowerment and that they give a sense of self-respect and a moment of aesthetic consideration, which gives it a sense of power that I have been looking for in my life. And I look forward to transforming my power from aggression to grace.
I also think that the forms became sort of inherently feminine. And I think that most of my work is a self-portrait of sorts. As someone who is two-spirit or has always struggled with gender and trying to understand it, I feel like my story is best told from my own bodily experience. So I'm making myself in a sense, and this is how we empathize in the world, is when we see ourselves in something else. It's easy to see oneself in another person, maybe of the same gender or the same race or the same community, and can we push ourselves to begin empathizing with something that doesn't look like us, be it a person, a gender, or even something like a tree or a bird or an animal, or even weather patterns or something that's part of our natural world?
That capacity to build an empathetic response, I believe, is how we begin to build community and a relationship with things bigger than what we are taught to do.
When I'm in New York City, I think often about history. There's so many layers of experience, of life, of stories that exist in every single place. I mean, you see that so viscerally in the buildings that are actual layers and piles of stories. But I think about the history of the Indigenous peoples that once lived and had thousands of years of history in place, and also of all the plants and animals and landscape features that are now obscured and gone from this place.
There's also the trauma of communities of enslaved peoples, who were used to build this country and the infrastructure of the country that we now take for granted, that being enslaved African people, enslaved Chinese people, enslaved Indigenous people, and also the communities of migrants from different countries that have been exploited and abused. And I think a lot of those stories, when they're not honored or understood or haven't had the means to tell that story, they're still there. They're still questioning, they're still wondering what happened and they might still be watching. I think about that everywhere I go.
And so, these beings I think stand as a witness and as a voice and as a way to bring consciousness to the stories of the past and the beings of all kinds that have existed and have been from genocide to different types of traumatic extermination, even environmental catastrophe. And then to our daily life, I think about the birds that live in the city, the river that flows through. I think about the trees that have these little holes in the concrete and they reach up towards the sky trying to compete with these large buildings for sunlight. I think about their stories and how they maintain and still have this heart to be and how we're still in relationship and we forget we're in relationship when we navigate the world, like we're the ones in charge.
American Artist on Mother of All Demos III
“The earliest computer interfaces always had blackness as a sort of basis of what could be done on a computer.” In this minisode American Artist considers the inception of the computer interface and asks how the origin story has shaped computation today. For whom were computers created? What purpose do they serve?
Released March 31, 2023
American Artist, Mother of All Demos III, 2022. Dirt, monochome CRT monitor, computer parts, Linux operating system, subwoofer cable, wood, asphalt, 50 × 59 1/8 × 30 1/2 in. (127 × 150.2 × 77.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting & Sculpture Committee 2022.116. © American Artist
Minisode: American Artist on Mother of All Demos III
Minisode: American Artist on Mother of All Demos III
American Artist: So the earliest computer interfaces always had blackness as a basis of what could be done on a computer.
My name is American Artist. That is not the name I was born with. I changed my name in 2013. I grew up in Southern California, but I moved to New York around the time that I changed my name and I've been living here ever since. I'm an artist and an educator.
This work is a functional computer that is made out of dirt. It has this material of asphalt that's been poured onto it and it's dripping and sticky with this black material. And it's on this standard desk. What you see on the monitor of the computer is white text on a black interface.
The shape of the computer is modeled after the Apple II, which was the last commercial personal computer that used this all black interface. So the earliest computer interfaces always had blackness as a basis of what could be done on a computer. I wanted to make a computer that was really rooted in this moment where blackness served as the basis of what could be done in virtual space.
This work is called Mother of All Demos. The name is based off of an event that's pretty well known in the computer science field. This moment in 1969 when Doug Engelbart gave a first demonstration of this new computer interface that he had created alongside the use of a mouse and being able to click around.
Doug Engelbart worked for Stanford Research Institute and he led a lot of innovations around computer technology and interfacing and how they were networked. He pioneered a lot of ideas that were central to the development of Silicon Valley.
And in that moment across the industry, computers began to use this white background as the backdrop for a computer interface. Prior to that, all computer interfaces just used text based languages and you would just type code into a computer screen. When interfaces were text based, they always had this black background on them.
And so whiteness pushed blackness aside as the original background of the interface to bring in this new era of computation. And in that moment it was said, blackness on the computer, it's bad for reading, it's not good for your eyes. And yet nowadays, we see a lot of that formal language of the black aesthetic coming back into computation.
I was thinking about the beginnings of the computer interface and ways in which anti-Black racism had been present in the decisions around what an interface would look like. This piece is part of the series Black Gooey Universe. There's hand prints next to where the keyboard of the computer would be. It appears that someone has just used this computer and they've touched the sticky surface and gotten their hands covered in this black material.
This word gooey is a way of saying this acronym GUI, which means graphical user interface. And that is a type of interface where you have windows and folders, and a mouse and a cursor, and you can click around. And so the Black Gooey was really about thinking about what a computation rooted in Blackness could look like and what kind of material manifestations it might have.
It was a return to that moment, but also wanting to rethink all of the values that we associate with computing that things need to be fast or pristine or mimic an office space—wanting to question what that idea of use even means and for who. For who are these things productive? Is productivity the only desired outcome of a device like this?
I do imagine someone having just used this computer, not someone that actually exists. It's a speculative person for whom this looks like a very inviting computer. This is a type of computer that represents their values and understanding of computation. And what I was really trying to do was make something that for anyone entering the gallery this would look uninviting.
I wanted to make something that felt dirty, sticky, things that you wouldn't necessarily want to touch, but then to show that someone actually is using this thing. And that was really about showing how much different computer technology could be if someone else had been in the room deciding what these different visual and formal design strategies would be.
And so if, let's say, a group of straight cis white men in the 1960s designed this office space device to mimic what they saw as a average way that someone might engage with information and visual information, what does it mean for that to then inform the way that everyone will engage with it from that point forward in perpetuity?
This work very much does feel like a thought experiment because it's pulling together these different histories and trying to flip them on their head and get us to really question how we even relate to computer technology. So much of what I'm trying to do in art doesn't really feel like how most people think about art, but it feels like it's trying to do a lot more in terms of shifting culture, raising consciousness about different political issues, and trying to use these formal and visual strategies as much as possible to really embed all of these deep thoughts into a material object.
Mother of All Demos is providing an alternative that is not necessarily attempting to resolve an issue. It's just provoking. It's saying, what if this computer is almost not useful? What if use isn't the main goal or deliverable of this object? But rather, it's merely intent on expressing different ways to exist or communicate that fall outside of everything we understand a computer to be able to do.