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About Intercourse

Published twice a year, Intercourse is a compendium of readings that encompass art, science, and alternative education. Intercourse extends the conversation happening at Pioneer Works into a supplemental manual for all your inter-disciplinary needs.

We hope this idea archive and record of an evolving discussion becomes an indispensable document in your search for knowledge.

Editors are: Dustin Yellin, Joey Frank, Catherine Despont, Randy Lee Maitland




Pioneer Works

Pioneer Works Center for Arts and Innovation is dedicated to the creation, synthesis and discussion of art, science and education. Located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the Center gathers artists, scientists and creative thinkers to collaborate outside the boundaries of traditional institutions where specialization often limits the application of ideas across disciplines. Through a community devoted to creative discourse and collaboration, Pioneer Works is a platform where ideas can manifest into their fullest expression. The Center enacts its vision for a more complex, creative and productive society through educational programming, exhibitions, publications, residencies, lectures and performances. Housed in a reclaimed former iron works factory, Pioneer Works is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.



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Issues

Issue 2

Issue 2 features essays on a hypothetical footbridge between Brooklyn and Governors Island; a high school project called Foxfire that became the inadvertent guidebook for the 70s back-to-the-land movement, and a discussion with Edward Frenkel about the true nature of mathematics. Performa’s RoseLee Goldberg and Ubuweb’s Kenny Goldsmith discuss the avant-garde and Ariel Pink talks to Animal Collective about horror and childhood. Other features include conversations with Carol Bove and Trevor Paglen, psychedelic celluloid, Ana Mendietta‘s lost earthworks, and the creative power of humiliation. There’s even new fiction from Jesse Ball.

Issue 1

Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers talks with Andrew Vanwyngarden of MGMT, and Sam Hayes interviews Bob Colacello. Artists Ernesto Caivano, Sara VanDerBeek, Benjamin Degen, David Brooks and Yuri Masnyj discuss the importance of friends and the varieties of art practice. Joey Frank provides Art History Astrology for Rabbits.



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Available at:

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as well as other book retailers



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Meaningful Consequence:
The Continuing Relevance of the Foxfire Project

by Catherine Despont

A Foxfire magazine index reads like an ode to a simpler time—a way of living that feels both familiar and increasingly remote. Its stories are culled from southern Appalachia and describe the vestiges of a traditional culture that once lived close to nature and was largely self-sufficient. The magazine features skills like tool making and log cabin building, trapping and tanning and midwifery—things learned through experience and practiced in much the same way for hundreds of years. There are crafts like quilting and weaving, ghost stories and wild food recipes, home remedies for flu, for freckles, for fretful children, and a great deal of biblical advice.

There are also interviews with the elders of this dying breed—people named Tedra Harmon and Homer Grist, Simmie Free and Daisy Justice, Ethel Corn, Octie Bates, Eddie Moon and Happy Dowdle—people who were born at home and remember an economy that functioned largely without money, a time when neighbors tilled each other’s fields and cleaned house when one was sick, when people went barefoot to save their shoes for church, and dating revolved around walks home and candy pulling.

FOXFIRE AS A TEACHING MODEL

We so often take school for granted that we rarely talk about its relation to life. Most will agree that education should do more than prepare us for work; at a basic level it should also expose us to new ideas, teach us to think critically, and get us to play well with others. And yet, we rarely even expect middle and upper school curriculums to pertain to life outside the classroom. It bears asking how the experiences of school compare to the experiences that come afterward—how formal education relates to other moments of learning.

“When you watch your pattern grow, t’me it’s like life—more like living. It’s more like building character than anything else I can describe it with. It’s like teachin’ a child from th’beginning to grow. As your pattern grows ‘r as your cloth grows, it’s just like a child growin’ up. You weave your life into somethin’ beautiful.” –Gertrude Keene

There’s usually a disconnect between the things we think we ought to learn and what we actually do. How good is your geography? How well do you speak a second language? Adults routinely develop skills in relation to the demands of a project. No one needs InDesign software to conceive of a book, but the decision to make a book makes learning InDesign feel necessary. Things that are tedious and frustrating on their own become exciting and meaningful when they have an application. You learn Spanish when you fall in love with a Spaniard. The map falls into place when you go on a road trip. In fact, some might argue this is the only way we learn anything, and yet the crucial difference between life and school is that the bigger picture is often missing.

“We only live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”
–John Dewey, Experience and Education

Foxfire’s philosophical precedent came from ideas popularized decades earlier by John Dewey (yes, of the Dewey decimal system) in his book Experience and Education. Dewey’s central test for successful education can be distilled to the difference between “having something to say, and having to say something.” At times the book’s most revolutionary quality feels like the sheer obviousness of what it suggests—that the goal of school should be learning how to think. “We do not learn from experience,” he says, “we learn from reflecting on experience.” Basic tenants of Dewey’s philosophy derive from a sense of an individual’s own needs and interests: a sense of continuity between school and life, an emphasis on process rather than outcome, and the ability to apply what has been learned. It’s a book for anyone who ever wondered what the point of school was, or felt they didn’t learn anything, or like real life lay elsewhere. On the other hand, it’s a terrifying prospect for people who like busy-work.

“My Grandfather came here from Africa as a slave when he was young…My grandfather said that when they educated him, they called the lady “Miss,” and she would take him and give him his lessons every day and she would dare him to tell any of the other slaves anything that he was taught. He wasn’t supposed to tell anything. I don’t think that my grandfather’s slave people were very cruel to him. He didn’t say anything [about that]. Mostly he said what the slaves would do and that the [slave owners] didn’t allow them to have church, or pray and sing…No, [the white people] were bitterly against that. They would punish them for that as quick as they would anything. He just said praying and singing—that was a crime.” —Beulah Perry

The magazine showed in practical terms how Dewey’s ideas could be implemented. Wigginton’s own book on the subject, Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience, is less a theory about education, and more a testament to the benefits of student responsibility. Anecdotes repeatedly describe the capacity of students to do surprising things when given tasks with real consequences. One boy who was assumed learning disabled, finally learned to read by studying for a mechanics license. A disruptive problem student revealed himself to be an exceptional teacher while foraging for ginseng. A group of students completed a complicated project when given resources to build a recreation room on campus. Over and over again he found that students could fail at remedial things, and yet thrive with harder tasks and more adult responsibilities.

Wigginton’s writing has an idealism that probably only survives from spending lots of time in the company of very young people. Though pitching to educators his real audience seems like adolescents. “This isn’t really a “How to Survive in the Woods” manual,” he explains in the “Introduction” to Foxfire 2. “See, mostly this book is about school and about community, and about people, and about the great adventure life can be when lived intensely.” Inspiring, yes, but maybe slightly over-emphatic. Sometimes a Shining Moment was popular when it first came out in 1985, and might have remained popular, except that Wigginton was convicted of child molestation in 1992, which gives the positive gloss of his narrative a slightly different character. It doesn’t necessarily make him monstrous, but, like J.D. Salinger, the too-close identification with youth begs the question why?

To his credit Wigginton never tried to identify himself as the spokesman of a teaching model. When invited to speak about Foxfire he frequently sent his students instead, and when asked how others could create similar programs he referred people to sources of inspiration. That habit of sharing leadership is perhaps one of the main reasons his conviction didn’t discredit the programs he helped put in place, or endanger them when he was imprisoned. By the time the case came to light Wigginton was teaching at the University of Georgia and other people ran the magazine, museum and teacher outreach programs.

As unsavory as Wigginton may seem from here, it’s clear that his idealism had a positive influence in the lives of many students. The Foxfire books stand out as much for the tone of their writing as for their subject matter. A section on weaving begins, “As we began talking to these people, we found that weaving was more than just a job or a way to make a living. It took away the loneliness of an endless day.” There’s a sense that the real lessons go far beyond the topics being covered. The project feels as much about the students own relationship to their “contacts” as it does about covering some objective material. There’s a sense of seriousness about the work, but also clearly a lot of enjoyment. Indeed students often continued to be very involved in the lives of the people they met—sometimes caring for them like family over many years.

Hilton Smith, the man who runs the Foxfire teaching programs today, says there’s often a strong correlation to activism when schoolwork is connected to the community. He has countless examples of student projects that have had a lasting impact. In Glen Ellyn, Illinois, student analysis of pollution at a nearby lake prompted cleanups by local industry. At Rabun County High School student inquiry at hearings for a potential nuclear waste site finally helped withdraw the area from consideration. And in Idaho, presentations by Lapwai Indian students about the traditional arts of their ancestors became a major event in the tribe. Based on these experiences, Smith believes that there’s a real cultural contribution to be made in terms of airing issues. Indeed many of the projects suggest that student work can play an important part in social change. Optimistic, energetic and untied to the world of professional interests, young people seem to be in a unique position to bring attention to society’s problems. And doing so would certainly make them uniquely prepared to engage those problems later on.

Too often it seems like meaningful connections between class and life happen by chance rather than design—a student who finds a way to bridge subjects with some other area of interest, a teacher who brings personal passion to a topic. Right now, teachers around the country are implementing the “Common Core,” which promises to teach critical thinking and a deeper understanding of concepts. And yet, the context is always the classroom, and the work is always in some sense preliminary—not actual life, but a preparation for it. In contrast, the task given to the students producing Foxfire was real in every way. It involved deadlines and budgets, professional contacts, paying audiences and above all a feeling that the work had value both personally and for the community.

Today, people have never received so many diplomas and been so under employed. That may not be a criticism of our education system in itself, but while the cost of school has grown astronomical we’ve also lost anything resembling an apprenticeship society. We’ve professionalized the avenues of learning, and separated critical thinking from skilled labor. In doing so we’ve also degraded the value of practical knowledge. It’s not to say that every aim of education can be taught through a trade, but the real lesson of an education that includes apprenticeship is that valuable knowledge can be accessed from the world itself—not just through institutions. Both Dewey and Foxfire turn the traditional school model on its head; the merit of the institution is no longer in terms of information, but rather a framework that makes for more effective collaboration with the community.

All photographs and captions in this article were taken by Foxfire students and were originally published in the anthologies Foxfire 2 ©1970 and Foxfire 3 ©1975.

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Affection for Certainty: Edward Frenkel in Conversation With Matthew Putnam

Ben Berlow, Untitled, 2013. Acrylic and gouache on paper. Courtesy of Rawson Projects, New York.

Edward Frenkel, professor of mathematics at California Berkley, authored Love and Math, part biography part attempt to explain, among other things, his research in the field of a unified theory of mathematics (sometimes called the Langlands program). He sat down with physicist, Matthew Putman, to talk about the relationship between physics and math, love, and the shape of the universe.

MATTHEW PUTMAN So, you’re getting famous for being a mathematician, but you still have a grounding in physics. Does math have a beauty in its own right, even if it doesn’t have a physical representation? And is that attractive to you?

EDWARD FRENKEL Yes, it does. And in fact, this is one of the main themes in my book, [Love and Math: the Heart of Hidden Reality] that mathematics is—in my view—separate from the physical world, and the mental world. They are connected, very deeply connected. But there are many mathematical theories. Some mathematical theories manifest themselves in a physical reality. But some of them don’t. And maybe they will, at some point. We don’t know. But there is an inner logic of mathematics that moves us to ask, and try to answer some deep questions. Einstein’s General Relativity Theory was based on the work of mathematician Bernhard Riemann, which was done 50 years earlier, about curved shapes, and what it means to have curved space, which is not embedded in any other. He was the first one to tackle this. There were others, like Gauss, who also had ideas about this, but Riemann was the first to have a systematic theory. At that time it was like, why would anyone bother? Because of course everybody “knew” quote-unquote that our world was flat. Of course, it turns out it’s not flat, that actually our space is curved, because, for example, a ray of light bends near a star.

MP Right.

EF But then, if it’s curved, then where is it embedded? That’s how our brain is wired, because we only imagine the space we inhabit as a flat space. So, anything that’s curved, like this glass, always lives inside a flat landscape. It’s very difficult to grasp the idea that a space, which is curved, could exist by itself—that a sphere could exist by itself, without being embedded in three-dimensional space.

MP Right. Which is the idea of the singularity in the first place.

EF That’s right.

MP There is no space outside of the singularity, at time zero.

EF That’s right. That’s a good example of this sort of subtle interplay between math and physics—that mathematicians ask these questions way before philosophers, way before physicists.

MP Right. But see, this is also the danger. I work in nanotechnology—so I deal with matrices. Almost everything that I deal with is in discrete linear algebra terms. I rarely deal with continuous systems at all. There’s hardly ever a confusion, in my mind, of when something is abstraction for the sake of being a tool, and when something is abstract in a more pure, abstract way. But when you’re dealing with quantum field theory it seems to me that you always have to keep yourself in check, and to figure out, “Am I dealing with something that has a physical representation? Or is this just beautiful math?” I think certain physicists step out of the realm of physics, without admitting that they’ve stepped out. Do you think that happens?

EF Absolutely. One has to keep track. It’s almost like I have to know which hat I am wearing, the hat of a mathematician, or the hat of a physicist. If I am a mathematician, I’m interested in all possible mathematical theories. A mathematical theory can be consistent, and sound, without having anything to do with physical reality. But if I’m a physicist, and I’m interested only in the things that describe the universe the ultimate judge of such a theory is an experiment. I like to be a mathematician more, in a sense, because it gives me a little more freedom.

MP Yeah. You’re not constrained by reality. [laughs]

EF That’s right. And in fact—

MP Although, it is a reality in itself, of course.

EF Exactly. It is a separate reality.

MP Once it’s created, whether in the imagination, in the mind, or especially within the framework and the constraints of math itself, and theorems and so on...

EF That’s right. The mathematician, Georg Cantor was the first to realize that there are different kinds of infinity. Other mathematicians were puzzled by this, and frightened by this, and said he couldn’t do it. And he said, “Yes, I can. The essence of mathematics,” he said, “lies in its freedom.” There are no boundaries. Within it, of course, there are rigid rules of logic. But you cannot constrain yourself. You can go as far as you can. And that’s the beauty of mathematics, I think.

MP I don’t even know if you believe this or not, because I’m not sure about how I feel about this—but would you say that a great mathematician can therefore make a great physicist, because they are not constrained by their imagination? Once you have a mathematical concept that makes sense within the limitations of physics, you can say, “Great. Now that moves into the realm of physics.” If it never hits that, it’s still beautiful math.

EF Right. But the difference is in the focus. So, the focus of a mathematician is to have a consistent theory, and to go as deep as possible. But the focus of a physicist is to describe the universe. So, one cannot replace the other. There is this tension, you know? I’m far from saying that it’s mathematicians who really are going to discover the best physical theories. You have to have that focus and motivation, and you have to have your eye on the ball all the time, if you’re a physicist. And if you’re a mathematician, it’s almost like you have many different love interests—you’re not monogamous. It’s almost like a polygamy of knowledge. In the great landscape of theories you love all of them equally. But if you’re a physicist, you love the one that describes your universe, you know? And I respect that.

MP Right. And, then we go right back into that trap of what becomes beautiful, but maybe not real.

EF That’s right.

MP Things become sort of a pet loved theory, that’s not really a theorem yet. Most physics grad students that I’ve spoken to, you ask them what they think of the multiverse and most will say, “Yes, I believe there is a multiverse.” To me, the fact that you’re saying, you “believe” in a multiverse is insane.

EF Yeah, because it’s not the function of science to believe.

MP You don’t believe in anything. And yet now we’ve gotten to a point where things have become so precious, because of maybe a mathematical elegance—like string theory. Perhaps it’s right. Perhaps it’s not right. But it becomes so precious that you start to accept it, almost as a religious acceptance. And I’m finding that very surprising.

EF That’s right. I have to be aware—self-aware—that I am a mathematician, not a physicist, right? So, if I start talking about that theory being the theory of the universe, I have to be very careful. Has it been experimentally confirmed? What are the ways to confirm it? What are the ways to experimentally distinguish my theory from someone else’s? What are the ways to falsify my theory? Right? Which is ultimately the test that a physical theory has to pass. And multiverse is a good example of this changing category, because string theory is a beautiful mathematical idea. It may well be the theory of the universe, or maybe part of the ultimate theory of the universe. We don’t know.

MP Or maybe not at all.

EF But it has a fundamental issue, which is that string theory—or more properly, superstring theory—can only be consistent mathematically in 10 dimensions, in 10 space-time dimensions. We only observe four space-time dimensions—three spatial dimensions, and one time. So, what happens with the remaining six dimensions? In principle, it’s possible that our world is 10-dimensional. For example, if you have a tube of a very small radius, it might appear to you as a line. The extra circle could be so small, that it’s almost invisible.

MP Right on nanotubes when I’m visualizing it from above it doesn’t look like a three-dimensional object at all.

EF That’s right. So, the dimensionality of our space-time is a big question. It could well be that there are extra dimensions, but they are wrapped on something very small. It could be that there is one extra dimension, and that extra dimension is wrapped on a circle with a very small radius, which we cannot see. If there was just one extra dimension to accommodate, there would only be one choice—that is a circle—because a one-dimensional object could either extend infinitely far, or if it’s finite, it has to be a circle. It has to run up on itself, so the only parameter you would have is the radius of that circle. And that’s it. Now, if there were two extra dimensions to accommodate, there would already be more choices, because it could be a sphere, or it could be the surface of a donut. Or it could be the surface of a pretzel, and so on—what mathematicians call Riemann surfaces. There are already more choices, more possibilities. But now, imagine we actually have to accommodate six extra dimensions, because that’s the only way to have a consistent string theory. So there has to be a six-dimensional shape that we don’t see, which is very small. But what is it? It turns out that there are 10 to the 500 choices, by some estimates—just an unimaginably large number. And one of the biggest questions of string theory is, which one is it? The reason why this idea of multiverse became so popular is because some physicists said, “Actually, we don’t know which one. All of them are realized. Each of them gives rise to its own universe.” Depending on which shape appears, and which shape those six extra dimensions are wrapped on, you will have different universes, with different laws of nature. And maybe only one of them will support a conscious being who will ask the question, “Why are we here?” So, it’s kind of like a marriage of the antropic principle and string theory.

Ben Berlow, Untitled, 2013. Graphite and gouache on paper. 31.5 x 25 in. Courtesy of Rawson Projects, New York.

It’s an interesting question. However, my comment is that we’re actually so far away from knowing what string theory really is. We have only very rudimentary understanding. It’s not really a theory. It’s a bunch of tricks. So my feeling is that we should put more effort into actually trying to figure out what string theory is, before saying that this is the only alternative. Maybe if we work harder, in 10 years, in 20 years, we will find some new principles, some new ideas that will say, “Actually, this six-dimensional space is such-and-such,” so you don’t have to say that all of them are realized randomly.

MP Yeah. I think you went very quickly by something that is important here—that we’re several layers deep into something that’s not falsifiable.

EF That’s right.

MP So, a discovery is only a part of a process of discovering the universe, and there is no end-point to this. Say somebody creates a painting—that painting is completed. It’s on the museum wall. There are things in life that get completed. Science doesn’t.

EF But once you choose your axioms, then any mathematical theory is like a work of art, that is completed. It is there, it is true, it is valid, right? Unlike a physical theory where you would actually need to have an experiment. And even then, you might have an experiment but there are still some areas in which your theory doesn’t apply. In physics, you can spend all of your life on this particular theory, only to find out that experiment proves it wrong, or there is no experiment.

MP It’s interesting because as humans, how does that actually feel, when you are the father of a physical hypothesis, which has been shown not be true, after a 30, 40-year career?

EF I mean, of course mathematicians also get to be disappointed and frustrated. We find mistakes in our proofs, a famous example being Andrew Wiles’ original proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem in the mid-’90s, which was flawed. There was a mistake that he himself discovered and it took him a year to fill the gap. But there is a feeling in the mathematical community that it’s possible to actually, eventually, have computers to verify proofs, because it’s within this very rigid system. We know for a fact that the Pythagoras Theorem is true. We don’t have to believe it, we just know it, right? And that’s a very interesting aspect of mathematical knowledge. It means the same thing to everybody. And even if Pythagoras himself hadn’t discovered it, someone else would have discovered it, exactly the same thing, which we can’t say of practically anything else in life. If Leo Tolstoy hadn’t lived, no one would have written ‘Anna Karenina’.

But if Pythagoras did not live, then we’d still have the Pythagoras Theorem. So, what is it about math? Why is it that there are these truths...? Why is it that there are these mathematical truths that we somehow all share, which are persistent, and inevitable, unlike anything else? What does it mean? I think it’s a big question that hasn’t really been understood. We’ve only scratched the surface. We don’t understand what mathematical knowledge is really about, where it comes from, and how we have access to it. And I think as we learn more about it, we will learn so much more about the physical world, and our consciousness.

MP Right. You certainly fall into a group, I would say, of mathematical optimists. But I can think of two books, one is Janna Levin’s first book, as well as David Foster Wallace’s book about infinity and they both start out the same way, talking about all of the mathematicians that have driven themselves crazy, or driven themselves to either suicide, or insanity. And they’re big names.

EF That’s right. With mathematics, you’ll never know whether you’ll be able to prove something. Pierre Fermat left a note in this old book in 1637, that said, “I found a beautiful proof of this,” in what we now call Fermat’s Last Theorem, he said, “But this margin is too small to contain it.” And it took 350 years to find an actual proof. In my book I talk about it in personal terms, describing my experience solving my first mathematical problem, and wondering will I be able to do it? Am I cut out to be a mathematician? I don’t know. Right? This was my first threshold. Will I be able to cross it? There’s a fear of not being able to do it and nobody can tell you, whether you can or cannot. In other areas of human endeavor you can always sort of, bend the rules. You can always say, “What does it mean to be successful? What does it mean to succeed on a given project?” In order to, you know, improve the productivity in a company, what will constitute a success? If we raise it by 20% is that success? 10%, is that success? How do we measure it?

MP You can have a metric for it.

EF You can always, but it’s subjective, it depends. But in mathematics, it’s very clear what constitutes the answer. You can spend years and years banging your head against a wall, trying to solve a particular problem, and may not be able to do it, because maybe some crucial ideas just aren’t understood. Too soon, too early.

MP Writing a book is a big break, right? Was it helpful, or was it a distraction?

EF Very helpful. I learned so much, through the process of writing this book. The problem is that when I say the word, “Mathematics”, most people think of something else, and not what I think of as math. The analogy I make is to imagine an art class, in which all the teacher did was show you how to paint a wall, paint a fence, and told you that was what art was about, and never showed you the paintings of the great masters. Never told you there are museums where you can see them. Then, of course, years later, when people say, “What do you think of art?” you’ll say, “Oh, I hate art. I was so bad at it at school.” Unfortunately, that’s what happens with mathematics, that people say, “I hate math. I’m bad at math.” But they’re really saying, “I’m bad at painting a fence.”

MP That’s right. Kids will struggle with arithmetic, and then think, because they can’t calculate four digit numbers in their head, that they’re obviously not mathematically inclined, and yet those are very different things.

EF Exactly. There is actually a vast archipelago of knowledge that is completely hidden from the public view. Professional mathematicians know about it but we don’t have time to talk about it. It’s almost like we are working at this gold mine, digging something beautiful, but we are so tired at the end of the day, because you have to go through a lot of dirt, that you don’t have time to step back, look and admire, and show it to others.

MP So this reminds you to look at the big picture?

EF Yes. Writing this book made me look at the big picture. It made me think about what mathematics is really about. And also, in what sense there is a link between mathematics and love.

MP What is this link?

EF The link is this idea that I talked about earlier, of universality of mathematical knowledge—that I can meet somebody from a different culture, they may not speak the same language, yet we share all mathematical knowledge just by virtue being humans. I share this with Pythagoras who lived 2500 years ago. Mathematics is the great connector. At the end of the book, I quote Newton, who said that he felt like a little boy on the seashore, playing with pebbles, trying to find a better pebble, or shell, while this vast ocean of knowledge lay beneath him. And it’s like we are all like children playing with this stuff, and I want everyone to awaken to this reality that belongs to all of us. It may be the foundation for loving the world, loving each other, because we already have something in common. A mathematical formula doesn’t explain love. But it can carry love, can be charged with love.

Ben Berlow, Untitled, 2013. Graphite and gouache on paper. 22 x 32.5 in. Courtesy of Rawson Projects, New York.

MP That’s beautiful. I always think about the fact that mathematicians still talk about beauty as being important. For a mathematician, beauty is a statement of quality—it remains pure enough that we can call it beautiful. But in art, beauty is cliché— we can no longer call a contemporary piece of art beautiful. We have to find some other way to describe it.

EF It may be beautiful to one, but it might not be beautiful to another. With mathematics, it’s much more...

MP What I’m saying is, that even society has said, “We’re not supposed to be creating ‘beautiful’ art anymore.” It’s not about beauty. Art is not about beauty.

EF But mathematicians have kept this tradition of paying attention to beauty and elegance.

MP Exactly. Elegance – Yes. Elegance and beauty is something that is foundational.

EF It’s a guiding principle.

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Conjunctivitis: Ariel Pink in Conversation with Animal Collective's Geologist

The story goes Ariel Pink was a relatively unknown musician working out of a bedroom in Los Angeles until the Animal Collective picked up a CD-R of Pink’s 1999 album, Doldrums. Geologist was one of the first members of the band to meet Ariel, who was signed to their label, Paw Tracks, a couple of weeks later. They’ve been friends ever since.

ARIEL PINK My experimental days were really an outcrop of my getting into different kinds of music, and getting out of metal, at first—which was kind of like a three or four-year study at the beginning of my musical education. I went from death metal, black metal, to death rock. And from death rock to industrial. And industrial opened up my horizons. It was all kind of, like, the original, the first wave of industrial, but it was very historicized in my mind, because I wanted to find the original sources for everything.

GEOLOGIST Are you talking about Einstürzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle?

ARIEL PINK Just a smattering of goth bands, which then very quickly graduated to the most influential players in that milieu, who weren’t necessarily goths themselves but were probably some outcrop of some other scene, overlapping, like post-punk or something like that, like Joy Division.

GEOLOGIST Right.

ARIEL PINK Throbbing Gristle was a huge influence at the time, and Cabaret Voltaire. They were introducing all these different sorts of weird sounds that weren’t right, sounds that didn’t stick well with the ear and weren’t what you would consider a good signal or anything like that. And it was troubling. It was definitely a disturbing experience, which was something that I would look for during most of my metal phase. I was drawn to the disturbing aspect. And even before that, I was very into horror movies, all throughout my childhood.

GEOLOGIST Did you find that that...

ARIEL PINK It all runs together, in my experience, all the horror, all the camp, all the seediness, all the bad things. I saw it being linked by a certain nihilistic something or other. I didn’t know what to call it, but it’s something like miniaturized evil. I also saw experimental music, especially 20th century experimental classical music, as being a real exercise in alienation, and in alienating previous forms. So when I started learning about Stockhausen, and Luigi Nono, and even Miles Davis, the experimental elements were the things that really spoke to me, like an outcrop of my appreciation of the raw, untutored sounds of Throbbing Gristle, which was the only comparison I could make to a lot of these experimental classical and very serious composers. But that they sounded close to the amateurish, primal ineptitude of Throbbing Gristle, and all sorts of other bands that didn’t know what they were doing coming out with this weird sound. That was where high art met low art, or low visibility, and it’s where I somehow figured I could exist as a classical composer, or be this completely ridiculous art band that was akin to the art prank that was Throbbing Gristle in its own time. That was honestly something that I was into, but also the punk style, and all that kind of stuff, and in a very subversive way—the youth expressions of rebellion, marketed towards post-World War II styles of nationality, nations, and nation-states. It’s like, music is meant to be consumed by drone citizens, and drone kids in particular, and their mothers, all the while having a worker bee father. Maximizing your utilitarian potential.

GEOLOGIST [laughs] That’s...

ARIEL PINK Sorry, I was kind of rambling.

GEOLOGIST No, no, it’s fine. I mean, it’s interesting that you’ve made the reverse connection, I think, that I did, which was starting with highbrow. But I came to those kind of things through horror movies. And I always felt a little like I wasn’t very nihilistic in high school, and I didn’t feel like I could take the contemporary classical thing too seriously. It wasn’t a joke to me, but I couldn’t find my way into it, other than on a purely aesthetic level. And so, there was always a disconnect. But then that led me to—

ARIEL PINK I bet you made the connection through the Grateful Dead. They had their Dark Star phase.

GEOLOGIST Well, I think Pink Floyd, or Syd Barrett, and how he was really into AMM—that was a big connection to me.

ARIEL PINK AMM, for those who don’t know, were communist. Well, I think Cardew was a communist, and he was a composer. The early half of 20th century classical music is very much in the idealistic revolutionary spirit of communism, and all of the promise that that might bring around the world. It was kind of like a reification of standards and language and progress. So, we have Schoenberg’s 12 steps, the making of a new alphabet, a new kind of music. He understands that it isn’t maybe necessarily communism, per se, but you see it as a revolution of sorts. And then there’s all sorts of little mini-revolutions under different names. But I think of AMM as being an extremely politically-motivated experience of creating with the moment.

GEOLOGIST Like in a more democratic, out of the—

ARIEL PINK —like a free-jazz context.

GEOLOGIST Right. Like out of the walls of patronage that a lot of the other serious composer music sometimes existed in.

ARIEL PINK Right. Like the UFO Club. Kind of closer to the sort of street-level of Pink Floyd, and the happenings and all that kind of stuff that were prevalent at the time.

GEOLOGIST See, we used to talk about that stuff to our friends who didn’t—well, essentially, didn’t do drugs, which is where I’ll take this next. But you know, friends of ours that dismissed things like Pink Floyd, or the Grateful Dead, then we’d point out AMM as this link, and they’d be like, “Yeah, I read about them in Bananafish Magazine,” or something. And then that led me to reading Bananafish and making the link between free jazz and noise, especially the really lowbrow noise—you know, quote-unquote lowbrow, like Prick Decay, or Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock, or all these kind of 90s cassette things. But to me, it all made sense. You could listen to the Grateful Dead, but I had to compartmentalize and compartmentalize each thing just to make sense of it.

ARIEL PINK Right.

GEOLOGIST But then at a certain point I was like, “Oh, you can just bring this all together.” And for me, the thing that allowed me to do that was drugs. And it’s hard for me to separate my appreciation of difficult composer music, or tape music, or synthesizer music, and cassette noise, without initially experiencing those sounds through drugs. And I don’t know how much you talk about drugs on the record, but...

ARIEL PINK When you say drugs, do you mean primarily marijuana?

GEOLOGIST No. More acid.

ARIEL PINK For me, it was much through the portal of marijuana that I experienced the most incredible sonics. I mean, it’s drugs, any way you cut it. But it was literally like my mind folding and opening up, and folding out in a thousand different ways when confronted and listening to all this music, privately, under headphones.

GEOLOGIST It was a part of your process? Do you just see it as coincidental that you happened to be into drugs and that music at the same time? Or do you see it as maybe, without the drugs, the music wouldn’t have gotten a hold of you?

ARIEL PINK I have to put the cart before the horse. It’s hard to make the case that this stuff preceded the drugs. I think the drugs preceded the music. There’s plenty of examples of this in history, and records. But for all intents and purposes, the whole 60s thing, and the whole American dream dissolved, and everything that’s common sense is a product of that sort of broadening of the awareness of the people. Pot, for starters, and acid not very far behind it. And then all these things like heavy metal, which I almost got into first, initially, could actually happen.

GEOLOGIST So you actually give the 60s credit for heavy metal?

ARIEL PINK I think you have to say that the drugs really do open up people’s minds and give you a glimpse into another world, and then that perhaps inspires people to present things in a completely new way that sets future humans on a path towards a certain point.

GEOLOGIST It’s sort of like asking what your take on the 60s and L.A. is. Is it optimistic? It’s like you just move out there and make your own reality. But I get Arthur Lee too. There’s a dark paranoia out there.

ARIEL PINK Oh yeah.

GEOLOGIST It feels more like the “Welcome to the Jungle” video than it does a Crosby, Stills, and Nash record, you know what I mean?

ARIEL PINK Historically, you consider the lives of the individuals. They’re all really fractured humans.

GEOLOGIST In your music, I feel like that. You can get the sort of sunset bliss out of it, but there’s always a darkness in there. And so I think of someone like you relating to a side of the 60s, and what drug culture did, and what California culture did—and then later going into heavy metal, which some people maybe traditionally haven’t put a lot of thought into, myself included, and might say heavy metal kind of came out of an anti-60s sentiment...

ARIEL PINK Everything came around in the 60s, and sort of just stayed there. It seemed to live in a 60s, early 70s conglomerate, and that’s where we exist, forever.

GEOLOGIST Yeah totally. But some people take an optimistic view of that, and some people take a pessimistic view. It almost seems like you take, surprisingly, both.

ARIEL PINK I don’t take any sides to it. I see myself as completely indifferent, a spectator, eavesdropping on that world of symbolism. But I definitely feel both sides. You can’t really have one without the other, as much as people might like to believe that they can. We’re in a situation now where we’ve been force-fed certain values a certain generation of Americans had time to gestate and absorb and to restructure accordingly, like our parents’ generation, and that’s the 60s. But we grew up in the 80s, and that was just essentially the product of our parents coming around to the fact that their own idealism was, to some degree, a farce, a failed experiment, and an escape from reality that was couched in a singular misunderstanding of things. And what’s happened is that we grew up in a more or less idealistic but diluted environment, and it’s all so separated from its source that we have this dogmatic, autocratic, sort of super-ego that’s presiding over everything, that takes on the form of spectacle, as Debord would call it. And really it sort of commands and dictates the stakes for interactions within society.

GEOLOGIST What’s the singular misunderstanding?

ARIEL PINK The most ancient misunderstanding, and that’s that—

GEOLOGIST People are good?

ARIEL PINK It happened in ancient history, somewhere along the line: we understood that if we huddled together and worked in unison, with the guidance of certain tools—a specific language, syntax, words—we could communicate, we could actually overcome a lot of nature’s more predacious and scary aspects. We could share information basically in one body.

GEOLOGIST Right. But back to the music, if you want to go there. I think you’ve experienced something similar to what Noah [Lennox, Panda Bear] may have experienced—you’ve inadvertently birthed a lot of musical children.

ARIEL PINK Plenty of children.

GEOLOGIST When I hear people try and distill your ideas into their own music, I don’t get a lot of the darkness or a lot of the difficult, sonic interests that I think come out.

ARIEL PINK I wonder if what they hear is even darkness when they listen to my stuff. The awkward fan base that I’m touting and supporting was made overnight by “Round and Round,” you know? And that was a piece of smooth music for—for somebody.

GEOLOGIST Right, but you spend 30 seconds of that song literally just repeating the phrase “breakdown” over and over. And, I mean, there’s a lot of ways you could take that.

ARIEL PINK Right.

GEOLOGIST But it seems obvious to me, even if that’s not what you meant with that particular song. It’s ambiguous enough that it should hit that button in a listener’s brain. So can you explain how that “breakdown” can make it into a song like “Round and Round”?

ARIEL PINK My whole thing has been toil and suffer since forever. I mean, I really doubt myself, and I feel like I’m shrinking ever and ever away from a period in my life when I was a child and I was a bubbling ball of creativity that just had so much potential. I mean, I really want to raise my five-year-old self, and make sure nobody’s gotten to him, you know what I’m saying? Like, look at this guy, he’s going away, he’s dying, and you didn’t know what a genius this guy was. And that’s the poor guy I need to put to bed, you know?

And in lots of ways, Can showed me the path. They were all doing rock and roll in their 30s, and I was a mere 15-year-old, and I somehow knew or gleaned, from the little I was exposed to, the essence of rock and roll, its vital first instincts. It’s not rocket science. It’s just that 15-year-old or 16-year-old who just fucking picks up a guitar and, against all logic, just fucking does it. And I knew that that was what I had to be at that time, and really make the most of that reality. But at the same time I couldn’t conceive of wandering through my 20s without actually having other examples of rock and roll. If I was going to do it, it couldn’t be a temporary thing. And there was the practical side to Can: these guys studied Stockhausen and Boulez and then they started a rock band and that reassured me. They’re an example of a band that started off with a fresh palate halfway through their lives.

So the thing I’m getting at is the insecurity that I felt as a child, the suffering I went through. That insecurity was absorbed, and it was actually lived. I didn’t deny it, I didn’t repress it. I actually embraced it. I took it as a fact and I let it in my soul—that I was bad. And that I was all of these things. Not as a way to absolve too much of the guilt of anything but to allow a little space in my heart, a little more room in my heart, for things that were bad. Things that were wrong. You know, so I could forgive my parents a little bit.

GEOLOGIST This is something we’ve never talked about. Is there something that happened to you when you were five that you want to talk about or should we just let that be?

ARIEL PINK Nothing happened. My parents divorced. When you’re five years old, you don’t have any kind of say in anything. You live your life as a slave, and you live your life truly under the control of your parents. You’re left to whatever situation. They’ll give you relief. They’ll drown out the cares. They will stop the tears from flowing. And I think I had a lot of initial typical baby experience that predisposed me to certain modes of coping without feeling like I could go to Dad, and go to Mom at the same time. There was a very big disconnect there. I was either with one or the other, and one was sort of the darkness and one was sort of the light. And that was reinforced throughout my childhood. So I’m definitely the product of a single mother, tempered by a father who had the fantasy of having a picture-perfect family.

GEOLOGIST When you say you allowed yourself to be bad, what do you mean?

ARIEL PINK At first I had a lot of anger issues that I was put in therapy for, I guess because my parents thought I was exhibiting signs, alarming signs, of some sort of crisis. And I was always really mad at them, because they were so cruel, because they didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt. They doubted my insight into things. They didn’t know if I was right or wrong, but I felt very, very convinced that there was nothing wrong with what I was feeling.

That was very presumptuous of me, but it was also presumptuous of them. Everyone believes parents know what they’re doing, but really, think about it: I’m eight years older than my mom when she had me. I’m five years older than my dad was when he had me. I mean, I can think to myself, “My mom was as big a kid as I am,“ because I know how young I am.

GEOLOGIST Yeah, my parents had me at 24.

ARIEL PINK You know how quickly time flies? Before you know it you’re this parent. You don’t know how to do it, and you just do everything wrong. I mean, sure, you learn from your kids every day.

GEOLOGIST As someone who’s listened to your music, even without you having to tell us the story it’s there. If you listen to “House Arrest,” it’s the answering machine message from your dad. You put it all out there. And again, I think that’s something that separates you from everything else, whether you want to call it hypnagogic or chillwave. Anytime I listen to it, I say to myself, “There’s nothing raw here.” And the reason the hazy nostalgia works in your music, the reason I’m attracted to the safety of it, is because there’s so much darkness as well. You provide an intense contrast. But when it’s not there and you listen to somebody who just provides a safe, hazy, nostalgic production, it serves no purpose.

ARIEL PINK I don’t think that I was doing anything other than going back to that five-year-old self, because I knew that I couldn’t forget that, and I was desperate to keep that five-year-old alive. It just happened to be that I existed at a time when the regime would be the 80s and that would inform my first memories—basically what I was subjected to. But the whole idea of 80s nostalgia is really stupid, because, for one, it’s not so much about nostalgia per se, it’s literally my particular memories that I am constantly going back to. As for the hazy, murky production—I knew exactly what I was doing by doing that, because I felt the disconnect with the music that I was hearing all around me. It was a magical force. And it’s almost like it was a dream from when I was five years old, which elevated it beyond being a mere pastiche of stylistic jargon. I saw it as a return to the memories of the 80s, informed with a new pedigree and historical background to work back to, that moment in music that gave voice to things like “Billy Jean.” So it was a conscious yet also consciously unconscious project. I didn’t need any Daniel Pinchbeck to kind of tell me the way.

GEOLOGIST You went there for valid emotional reasons, not because—

ARIEL PINK Not because it was cool.

GEOLOGIST Not because it looked like a faded photo in a magazine or something.

ARIEL PINK I wanted to do something that was in line with horror. I wanted to make the saddest record back then. That was my number one goal, as a disaffected Columbine generation kid but with an outlet. It was that. It was that I could be toiling in extreme disaffection—that was my definition of greatness at the time. Because, paradoxically, I couldn’t have been happier. Even after what I’d learned about all my heroes, the tragic bite that people have...

GEOLOGIST Are you still shooting for that level of sadness when you make a record?

ARIEL PINK It’s still important, but not so much. It’s less formulated in my mind. What would be sad is if I didn’t record at all. But the urge to record is something that has changed for me, so I don’t have the desperate inspiration that maybe I had when I was a surly, angry, young, ambitious little kid—whatever, teenager. But I also know that I have to avail myself of music in order to not be a failure. There needs to be some sort of coping mechanism for people to live productively. Or to just live. Like, you’ve never had a reason to hang on to life, now you have to create it. If you don’t, then you’re going to eventually stumble on the question of “Why? What is keeping me alive?” And then, when you’re faced with that question, you don’t really want to ever answer it. Then at that point you start to fill your life up with lies.

GEOLOGIST Are you acknowledging that the desperation to record isn’t there as much?

ARIEL PINK I don’t want to force anything. I definitely don’t want that. If I have to do it, then I don’t want to. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily do it for me anymore. I don’t do things for me anymore at all. I do things for other people. It only makes me happy if other people are happy.

GEOLOGIST I go back and forth between being like that and then sort of taking inspiration from bands like Sun City Girls, or even people like Stockhausen, who say, “I’m doing it for me.”

ARIEL PINK I agree.

GEOLOGIST Because you’re attracted to that sort of alienation, that intention. You respect the people that are like, “Fuck it, I’m doing it for me. If you want to come along you’re invited, if not you can leave.” But the more I go on the more I realize there’s a simpler, more pure enjoyment in just making other people happy.

ARIEL PINK When you get a family, that’s front and center. That’s the feeling isn’t it? It’s not your life anymore, you’re really here as a servant to your son, to your daughter.

GEOLOGIST And not in a way I resent at all. It’s fun.

ARIEL PINK Yeah, it is. I honestly feel like I do this for the people that got through their own stuff with my music, who encouraged me to continue because of what I did for them. I really feel if it’s appreciated then I must be doing something right, because I’m really not doing anything other than being myself.

×

This Shape is its Meaning: Carol Bove in Conversation with Joey Frank

Carol Bove, Hieroglyph, 2013. Photo credit: Jeffrey Sturges. Courtesy of Maccarone, New York and David Zwirner, New York/London.

Sometimes her sculptures evoke the eerie feeling you get in a corporation lobby of an authorless, subliminal, aesthetic principal at work. A lobby requires a certain type of art, which Bove refers to as “plop art,” which acts like a signature doodle or glyph placed in concert with the functional elements of the building.

In her recent show at Maccarone, Carol featured a second parallel show installed throughout—a historical look at the friendship and collaborative drawing project of pioneering American musicologist and animator, Harry Smith, and Jewish mystic and poet, Lionel Ziprin. The two explored esoterica and the early seeds of psychedelia and in the 1950s they founded the Qor corporation to hatch various business enterprises such as greeting cards and patterned linoleum.

CAROL BOVE It seems like people either come to Harry Smith through the music, or through the film. People don’t realize it’s the same person because it’s a really common name, so you think, “Oh that’s a different Harry Smith.” His “Anthology of American Folk Music” and collage animated features like “Heaven and Earth Magic” seem like really separate endeavors. I was introduced to him as an artist whose work was a single unclassifiable life project.

JOEY FRANK I always associated him with Alan Lomax as the ethnomusicologist people for Folkways. But Lomax was going out and making field recordings and releasing them as records. Harry Smith was doing a different thing to collect all those rare early recordings from the 20s and 30s and preserving them by releasing them on Folkways. They were already historic to Smith in 1952, and looking back on it from the other side of recording history, there’s something on the edges of legality releasing other people’s recorded music like that. It made me think about your show in a meta way, “Can you present this much of someone else’s work? Even around your own work?”

CB Right, because it’s some version of appropriation, even though every aspect of it is transparent that it wasn’t made by me. So, it’s not actually appropriated. I always think about it more as a forced collaboration...

JF Like Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole...forced duets.

CB Forced duets, exactly. [laughs]

JF I just read the chapter of The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus where he talks about the Harry Smith recordings as sounding like the ghost songs of America. They address Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and relate them to how inspiring the Anthology was to all the folkies from the 50s and 60s. Marcus doesn’t simplify it this way, but it seems that one way Dylan was inspired by Harry Smith was to go back and listen to his own rougher recordings from years earlier and release them without re-recording them. He was treating those original recordings as sort of found objects, collecting these old scraps and versions of songs. He had made all this more produced folk music but was looking for that underground aesthetic from this time where he was producing a lot of songs from lyric fragments.

CB Right, the found object. In that way, it’s the spirit of a lot of the work from the show, which comes out of Surrealism, and the idea of automatic writing: that if you do a lot of automatic writing, you’re drawing from a deep pool, or you’re becoming a channel for some other more profound intelligence. Sometimes it just comes out as scribbles, but then sometimes there’s something that transcends what you’d be able to make normally. There’s a lot of material in the Ziprin archive where there’s these amazing doodles that come from that mental place that feels separate from ourselves, where they’re finding things rather than making them.

JF It’s also interesting to think of what Smith and Ziprin were working on together while doodling: that mix, which was at the very conception of their work, between very weird, psychedelic patterning making and their very American entrepreneurial aspirations, trying to make designs for tiles or designs for linoleum or plastic sheeting to sell to people for home use and so on. I’m curious about that endeavor.

CB One of the exciting things about the Ziprin archive is that it’s 50s psychedelia, which is a thousand times more interesting than 60s psychedelia because it’s not codified. You have to imagine a universe where it’s actually really other, and it’s really threatening, and it’s not just a fun, fashionable thing that people are doing. The stakes are higher. If you look at them, with an eye for them (i.e. altered states of consciousness, otherwordly experience), you see it, but it’s not presented to you with all the known conventions. JF Tell me about these white forms that are in the show, those big sculptures. Did you see parts of the Ziprin archive before you made them?

CB Those are totally related. I think of them as doodles—where if you’re making a doodle with a certain type of pen on a certain type of paper, especially, say, graph paper, it dictates that you make certain types of marks. That’s my thinking with the different materials. So, there’s one material that is white tubular steel, and it has a certain kind of coating and I can only make certain types of marks with it. It can always half turn and you have to connect the half-turns with straight sections and then assemble them. It’s rigid in a way. You could expand as much as you want, but it has to be those moves.

So anyway, those are my glyphs, it’s sort of a riff on—or not a riff on—but it’s like plaza art, like “plop art.” People are still producing this kind of corporate plaza-friendly sculpture. It’s much more neutered now than 50s and 70s plaza art, where you have Calder, and Henry Moore. Arnaldo Pomodoro, Alexander Liberman, they each have a very clear glyph, which is more condensed, more succinct than the signature style. Legible as a single letter in an alphabet, I want to make a glyph that fits into this.

It’s like a motivated sign, not just an established symbol. It means something because it has a shape, and the shape becomes its self-evident meaning. The tree on a stick is another one of my glyphs. But I’m thinking about the white one, the white tubular glyph as being more...generic.

JF The gold cubes are also a glyph for you?

CB That also. Yeah, I guess that’s­—I’m expanding.

Richard Berger, My Couch, 1976. Aluminum frame, thread, lead balls. Appx. 6 x 12 x 11 ft.

JF I was trying to think about how the white glyph functions because I saw it in your piece at MoMA, The Equinox. That sculpture is very, very beautiful. Is it a sculpture or is it a group of sculptures? How do you refer to it?

CB It’s uncomfortably classified. I think of it as a complete statement, but also a group of sculptures.

JF It’s almost a container element: the way the objects are laid on that low plinth turns the support into a crisp sheet of paper. By turning the plinth into paper it made the materials become their signifiers and emphasized the ‘layout’ of the sculpture. It has a sacred floor plan. What is that small tree of life sculpture within the group?

CB Does it say something about a floorplan in the wall text? Because I did actually lay it out on a tree of life diagram. It’s schematized on there, the first piece of driftwood is Malkuth.

JF Oh, I was actually curious about this sort of sub-tree sculpture. It’s a metal stand with a shell and feather and gold cube and it feels like a little tree itself. It feels like an abstracted four seasons sub-map to the larger arrangement or, like a part of the animal that has extra detail complication because it happens to be the eyeball.

CB Right, right. Why do you call it Four Seasons?

JF Because it’s four and it looks like a tree. That’s why I called it Four Seasons. And the piece is called The Equinox, seasonal, and it’s almost like a logo. Perhaps I associate you with it in a ‘clang’ way because of the sculptor Richard Lippold.

CB Oh yeah. Well he has important sculptures at the Four Seasons. You know, the Four Seasons is the only restaurant in New York that’s an architectural landmark? The interior was designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe in 1958, and it’s been the same since then. It has all the detailing, window coverings, everything, and then these amazing sculptures that hang. When I went to the restaurant for the first time, I was asking the waiters, “Who made that sculpture?” And nobody knew who made it even though there are pictures of it on the bar menu. His name wasn’t on anything. It piqued my interest, this inversion, the fact that the interior is authored but the sculpture is not authored.

JF There is a kind of altered, interior context since it’s a bar and drinking is involved. But that open room can have an un-intimate aspect. I don’t know much of your personal history: how did you come to New York? What was your early work like?

CB I came to New York first and then enrolled at NYU just as an undergrad. In the first show I was just going to show drawings, then at the last minute I made the decision to show some text pieces. Putting them in the space really changed them a lot, in a way I hadn’t seen them until the moment when we were installing. The second show I did, I developed that aspect of it so much, there were so many kinds of interior design decisions. My work didn’t come from, “I want to make a sculpture that’s a hanging beaded curtain.” It was more like, “How do I put something in the middle of the room?” Something that I can see through, that helps you experience your body moving through the space but so I can still have all the views of things on the wall?” So it started from the design problem.

Installation view of the exhibition Carol Bove: The Equinox. July 20, 2013–January 12, 2014. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. All artworks either courtesy of the artist, Maccarone New York and David Zwirner New York/London or in the collection of MoMA. Photo credit: John Wronn ©2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

JF Because it’s not like installation art, what you are so expert in, but the installation feels super considered.

CB It’s subtly different. But yeah, in my second show I was thinking about that a lot, “What’s the difference between installation art and just a well-considered hanging?” You know? What’s the difference?

JF What were some of the challenges in this recent show?

CB Well the couch was just unbelievably tangled and we didn’t realize that was going to happen. It took us two crews of people working day and night for a week to get it installed on time. That was a really humbling lapse in judgment, not starting earlier.

JF Well, you really pulled it off. I saw one of your shows also a long time ago, downtown near the Paris Review.

CB Oh yeah, at Kimmerich [Gallery].

JF I remember thinking, “What is this?” In the neighborhood it seemed like it might have been a clothing or jewelry boutique, but there were bits of shells held up by metalwork and jewelry- looking gold and I didn’t understand what was going on, if it was sculpture or display cases or just found objects. But it stayed with me.

CB My dream would be that you would have that type of bringing to consciousness, that you know where you are, but have that type of confusion where you sense that you’re suddenly aware of your surroundings in a different way. It’s like this kind of invisible psychedelic experience. Like, it doesn’t look like psychedelic art or something that could produce that experience.

JF So back into the uncoded psychedelic at hand, who is Lionel Ziprin and how does he exist with Harry Smith?

CB Ziprin’s apartment was Harry’s second home when he moved to New York from California and Harry would come and stay up all night talking about esoteric knowledge. Ziprin was also putting a lot of effort into trying to make some money, which, despite his brilliance and creativity in other areas, he never had a talent for. He and his wife had started a beatnik, greeting-card company that wasn’t financially successful (I love Philip Smith’s line that it was “commercially unintelligible”) and Harry Smith designed a lot of the cards. After that company folded, somehow Mylar came into the picture and he started Qor Corporation. He and Harry started working on this capitalist endeavor which lasted from 1958-1962. Mylar was invented, I forget exactly which year in the 50s, and right away Lionel Ziprin saw that it had this potential to be a material that you could reverse print on and laminate it to any substrate material and that it could revolutionize the way that patterning is applied to building materials and interior design materials and fabrics and wallpapers. I interviewed the surviving member from Qor Corporation and he was talking about how they weren’t able to get the company off the ground.They made all these designs and had meetings with exectuives at DuPont, who were making Mylar, but they just wanted to pick their brains. The people at DuPont apparently thought it [reverse printing onto Mylar and laminating onto substrate materials] was a good idea but weren’t willing to financially support it. They encouraged Ziprin to find clients which he flatly or, well, flamboyantly, refused, so Qor dissolved. But when you see linoleum that has design patterning on it, or a laminate with a fake wood grain even, that was sort of the brainchild of Qor Corporation.

JF Right. Are those small tiles Mylar too then?

CB They are reverse printed Mylar etched onto aluminum and brass.

JF They’re unbelievable. It really brings me back to your work, in a counter-balance way. Because your materials are so raw, or stripped down or untreated—a driftwood ethos—you present work as its own pop signifier, as the material itself.

CB Unaltered.

JF Unaltered, yes. You don’t ask, “Oh, what is this? Has it been coated?”

CB Right, right.

JF I’m trying to see where this is situated in your work, where the material discovery of Mylar is in your own sculpture.

CB I want to have a light touch with materials so that I do as little as possible. So if something exists and it’s perfect, just let it be about what it is. But then, I guess it’s part of the same idea, where showing the two shows side by side is kind of part of the same conversation. Sometimes you have a source material or an object that you want to bring into the gallery: to what extent does it need to be altered in order to be art? Sometimes all you have to do is move something into the gallery space and it’s completely transformed. And that’s a version of the lightest possible touch. Maybe even the lighter touch would be if you moved it into the gallery and it’s not even transformed into art. You know, like the Harry Smith materials. I haven’t put some type of authorship over it and claimed “I made this into art.” No, it’s just the material that it is, that hasn’t been changed by the gallery context at all.

JF Harry Smith, material as a material. Also with the couch piece, you’re actually taking an artwork intended for an art context, but its associations have been changed entirely by having been put in your show. So the Carol show context turns an intentional artwork into a sort of found object, because there’s nothing group show about it. It’s been re-found by you. As soon as you mention or realize it’s from the 70s it feels like something totally from another time, this sofa element, a different time of relaxation or sit-down.

CB Doodling and sitting on a sofa.

JF Is anyone making these tiles?

CB They should do it, right?

JF We have to do it. You screen print linoleum, and then imagine this whole space here laid out with those tiles.

CB Yeah.

JF And all of a sudden a weird pattern would come up over here, and a weird pattern would go over there.

CB Yeah but they belong in a bathroom or something where you have a public space. Because it’s especially interesting when you go into a bathroom, and then you’re in private space but in a public situation. That’s always such a—

JF We should retile the bathroom immediately.

CB Well, when Harry Smith was doing the Anthology of American Folk Music, he said in an interview that he was reading Plato’s Republic at the time, and that Plato has this idea that you had to be careful what kind of music the people listened to, because people can get out of step with government. He was really skeptical about the efficacy of politics. [Smith] was apolitical, because he felt like politics were too superficial, and that if you actually wanted to transform society that you would do it through rhythms. And so ultimately music was transformational. So maybe you can extend that type of thinking to abstract patterning­­­. In the enterprise of making mass-produced patterns for people to have in their homes, Smith and Ziprin were using esoteric principals to produce forms. Do you think decorative tiles could draw down these celestial forces and transform society? I mean, I feel that must have been a shaping factor in their experiments.