Category:documenta, et al

Ibrahim Mahama, installation KNUST, Summer 2014

[Ibrahim] Mahama is largely concerned with the way in which these materials are given meaning as commodities, as well as literally, as products of a given environment. The economic circulation of the jute sack is informed both by various transferences of value (from the container of commodities to a unique commodity by appropriation) and processes of exchange (from the official Cocoa Board to the quotidian lives of traders and consumers).
- curator Osei Bonsu [via Ellis King]
And it goes on from there. Ibrahim Mahama is a 28-year-old Ghanaian artist whose large-scale installation of repurposed jute sacks, stitched and draped, provides the overwhelming coda to All The World's Futures, Okwui Enwezor's exhibition at the 2015 Venice Biennale. He's also been called "the next Oscar Murillo" by none other than Stefan Simchowitz, who claims he discovered the artist "on the Internet" and gave him his career. Now ArtNEWS is reporting that Mahama is being sued by Simchowitz and his dealer-partner Ellis King, for breaking their exclusive contract to represent him, and for "de-authenticating" nearly 300 [!] artworks he previously signed. The value of those artworks is now claimed to be nearly $4.5 million.

The complaint filed by Simchowitz in Central California Federal Court is eye-opening for its combination of candor, hubris, and delusion. [Here is a pdf, it's only 17 pages, so read the whole thing.] The ArtNEWS article explains the circumstances of Simcho's case very clearly, so read that, too. I don't need to recap it.

Ibrahim Mahama's 2013 installation at KNUST Museum, Ghana

What I find so extraordinary is Simcho's claims at having made Mahama's career and his audacious manipulation of Mahama's work. Let's look at the first one first:

8. Prior to meeting Simchowitz, Mahama had little, if any, recognition in the Western art world. Mahama had never displayed his work in any gallery or exhibit outside Ghana, either individually or as part of a group. He had made few sales of his work, if any. His work was not included in the collections of any museums, and exhibitions of his work were limited to Ghana. In short, Mahama was virtually unknown to the art world and had no experience exhibiting his art outside of his home country.

9. In or about 2012, Simchowitz contacted Mahama through Facebook. Simchowitz had seen photographs of some of Mahama's pieces online, principally consisting of draped jute coal sacks, and thought that he showed promise. Simchowitz eventually introduced Mahama to Ellis King, and the parties agreed to work together.

The timing here is not trivial, and Simcho's 2012 claim is vague at best. But in late 2012 Mahama showed one of his first jute sack installations during his MFA show at KNUST, El Anatsui's alma mater and the leading art school at the top university in Ghana. That's where artist/filmmaker/curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim scouted him out and began collaborating with him, introducing him to her international network. As Ayim put it:
I agreed to collaborate with him, connected him with collectors, wrote about him to institutions like the Tate and the Saatchi, to provide him a bridge at that early stage of his career. The art world, like so many others, is so full of corridors and gatekeepers that an artist, especially one working and living in Ghana, could go their whole lives without ever being able to sustain themselves through their work. I am a little weary of institutionalising this kind of 'residency' as I'm not keen on that particular play of power and never have been, the thought of myself as a purveyor whose word 'makes or breaks' an artist is a little sickening, as I don't adhere to that notion of privilege. And yet, there is no denying that an email here, a phone call there, from someone who has already built a reputation through their work, can enable an artist like Ibrahim to have his art seen in galleries and museums internationally, enable him to have a residency in London, to sell and provide himself an income, to stay living in Ghana rather than moving abroad, to not compromise on his vision.
And that is almost exactly what happened. In 2013 Mahama had a residency in London at Gasworks; created a jute sack installation at the Saatchi Gallery [and another in 2014]; and, according to the lawsuit, in October 2013 he agreed to sell Simcho & King six "Lots" of sewn jute sacks for £90,000. Two Lots, Simcho claimed, totaling about 5,000 sf, would be for two installations in King's Dublin gallery. In 2014 the other four "Lots" [which I estimate to have been 8-9,000 sf total] went to London where they were cut up and stretched to make 309 separate, painting-lookin' artworks in three different sizes [9x4.5', 8x4' and 6x3'].

Which would turn out to give the young Mahama a new perspective on commodity, appropriation, and the process of exchange. Simcho's suit says the "Contract" with Mahama was oral, yet there is obviously email traffic that flowed throughout the relationship. Mahama, the suit says, visited Simcho's guy in London "to oversee and approve the stretching process." Months later, in Dec. 2014, Mahama went to Dublin where he installed King's show, and where he "signed the 294 Individual Works."

"As a result [of the Dublin show in January 2015], the formerly unknown Mahama suddenly rose to fame," claims Simchowitz. This, after two shows at Saatchi, a London residency, participation in DAK'ART, the largest African biennial, and an announced show at The Mistake Room in Los Angeles, and certainly after the decision to be in Enwezor's Biennale [though two months before the public announcement]? No. Simchowitz did not make Mahama famous. He tried to buy big into momentum surrounding a clearly ambitious, talented, young--and recognized--emerging artist.

And then he sold big right ahead of the Biennale announcement. Simchowitz says he made Mahama's career, and made him famous, but the collectors he flipped to didn't even know who "the next Oscar Murillo" was they were buying: "I've sold Ibrahim's work to ten of my best collectors without telling them what they will be getting," Simcho told Los Angeles magazine, "I called it the Simchowitz Trust-Me Special."

Lot 107: Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2014, "Signed and dated 'Ibrahim 2014' on the reverse." It already found its way from Simcho to secondary market dealer Inigo Philbrick, who cashed it out for £12,500 in June 2015. image:phillips

What would Mahama call it? Despite having sold the material and signing them, the artist clearly had second thoughts about the 300 stretched works, and about continuing with Simchowitz and King. Another important exploration of capital, commodification, exchange, and colonialism, I guess. During the Dublin show the artist cut ties, asserted that the 300+ works were no longer authentic, and claimed control and copyright over the installations.

The suit says 27 stretched works were sold for around $16,000 each. That's almost $450,000, at least double the dealers' entire outlay. The lawsuit is over the impending worthlessness of the remaining 282 stretched works, which comes to $4.45 million. Plus expenses. Simcho can't claim he lost money on Mahama; only that he hasn't made enough. And enough here means at least a 20x return.

So WTF. The copyright thing is a non-starter. The only way Simcho can claim copyright on artworks is if he claims he made them, in which case, they're even less than worthless, or he documents they were work-for-hire, which who even ever? The biggest issue of the lawsuit is whether it's even valid. Does Mahama selling entirely other work directly to an unidentified California collector give the court enough reason to examine events that transpired between parties in Ghana, London & Dublin? Lawyers can tackle that one.

It all leaves the question of the stretched artworks. Which, though he regrets it, Mahama was apparently involved in making. And signing. Part of me says, so what? Richter signs stuff that's not art. He excludes stuff that he's made and sold. Is an artist bound for life by every creative decision he makes at 26? That's the risk of buying early work from emerging artists. It might be famous someday, it might be worthless. Simcho's real problem is that he had 300 pieces of it. He tried to buy it all. He bought all the guy's materials in bulk, then he chopped them up. He turned installations into paintings. Not paintings in the art sense, but as a unit of exchange: painting like breaking a hundred into singles so it goes farther at the club.

Ibrahim Mahama, Adum Train Station installation, 2013, image via: publicdelivery

There is one subset of 15 unsigned works which might show Mahama the way out of this dispute. Simcho calls them "the California Works," because he has them:

Each of the unsigned pieces was created at the same time, in the same place, by the same person (Atkins), in the same manner, from the same materials, and for the same cost to Plaintiffs as the works Mahama did sign. On information and belief, Mahama did not provide any reason why he failed to sign the California Works.

59. Bearing Mahama's signature to verify their authenticity and provenance, the California Works may be sold for approximately $16,700 each. Without his signature, the pieces are simply jute coal sacks mounted to wooden frames, which impacts their commercial value.

He says "Simply jute coal sacks mounted to wooden frames" like it's a bad thing. Yet the transactional history, the embedded memory and experience, and the transformation of those jute sacks is at the core of Mahama's practice. What if he just kept on making them, as an infinite edition? Instead of de-authenticating Simcho's 300 Mahama pseudo-artworks, why not just devalue them, by making as many as anyone in the world wants?

Mahama employs the traders who provide him the bags to sew them. Usually they are undocumented migrant workers. So a big jute sack artwork export business would create jobs in Ghana. image: gasworks

Mahama could continue his jute sack acquisition process, and keep hiring his undocumented migrant merchant workers to sew them. And then he could sell these entry-level Mahamas for what Simcho paid: about $300, stretched. Make as many as the demand warrants, whatever the market will bear. It'd be like Olafur Eliasson's Little Sun solar lamp artwork, but in reverse. Like Danh Vo's father's calligraphy letters. Or Walter de Maria's infinite edition High Energy Units. Who says art has to be expensive, or that the white guy collector's the only one who can reap the profits from selling it? With Mahama's Stretched Art, Ghana can diversify from cocoa and develop an export market for the detritus of consumer capitalism transfigured into tasteful masstige commodities of criticality. Catch the vision!

Jute Sack Artworks Are at the Center of Simchowitz Lawsuit Against Venice Biennale Artist [artnews]
Ibrahim Mahama talks with curator Osei Bonsu in Oct. 2014 at the Contemporary African Art Fair in London [youtube]
UPDATE: SIMCOR CEO responds on Facebook [facebook]

Aue Pavilions in Karlsaue, 1992, Robbrecht & Daem, image:

While poking around documenta 9 (1992), the year Cady Noland and Bob Nickas did their amazing thing in the new parking garage, I found these nice pavilions in the Karlsaue. Documenta director Jan Hoet commissioned five temporary exhibition pavilions from Ghent-based architects Paul Robbrecht and Kristien Daem.

Aue Pavilions interior, 1992 Kassel, image: Kristien Daem

The corrugated steel shells read a bit like train cars, but with an entire wall of glass, which made them perfect, someone figured, for showing painting. Which, Isa Genzken actually showed a resin sculpture. Gerhard Richter enclosed his gallery in walnut paneling. Adapted from simple, prefab industrial structures and raised on wooden pylons, were built to last the summer. They're still with us.

images: google streetview from 2009

After documenta wrapped, the pavilions found their way to Almere, a planned Dutch city east of Amsterdam built on reclaimed land.


For nearly twenty years, they housed an arts center, and eventually a municipal museum called--De Paviljoens.


The architects compared it favorably to a caravan (trailer) park. It was the kind of place where kids could hang out underneath, no problem. It even looks to have inspired the modular manufactured insta-architecture of the school across the street. [Speaking of streets, I thought the museum being located on the corner of Odeonstraat and Slapstickpad was a fluke, but surfing around Google, Almere has the greatest street names in the world. The next neighborhood over is Comedy Caperstraat, which intersects streets named for Abbott, Costello, Laurel, Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. There's even a David Nivenweg. Another neighborhood's named after directors, including Fassbinder, Tati, and Pasolini.]


Not sure what happened here, though. Looks pretty edgy!

The artist-themed neighborhoods include a Marcel Duchampstraat, but now the city has no museum. Dutch culture budget cuts hit The Pavilions hard, and though its website lives on, the museum closed for good in 2010. Developers [bought? got?] them, and In 2012, plans were announced to move the pavilions to the center of Nieuwe Stad (New City), an adapted reuse development of a former industrial site in Amersfoort, a city between Almere and Utrecht.


That finally happened, and just this summer, the pavilions hosted some big festival. Nieuwe Stad's slogan, DOE MEE IN DE PAVILJOENS! sounds hilariously worse in English.

Aue Pavilions, Kassel, Almere, Amersfoort, 1992- [robbrechtendaem]
documenta 9 archive []
De Paviljoens []
Doe Mee In De Paviljoens! []

Oh no, I was too slow. I was in the middle of a deadline-intensive project when I suggested that. While I understood the reluctance, even the revulsion, an artist might feel, but being compelled by a judge to make a "large and impressive" artwork--and a $350,000 one, no less--sounded like a fascinating situation. What would you do?

..., 2015, oak and polychrome Madonna and child, French Early Gothic 1280- 1320; marble torso of Apollo, Roman workshop, 1st-2nd century ad; steel 154.2 × 50 × 50 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery [works list (pdf) via]

Well, today, just as I was mapping out the parameters of my own proposal, Danh Vo apparently answered that question himself. His proposal to Dutch-in-Switzerland collector Bert Kreuk was a little unclear in the details, but it involves a quote from the demon possessing Regan in The Exorcist, which Vo had also used for a piece in his show at Marian Goodman in London last January, and which he included in "Slip of the Tongue," his fantastic group show at Punta della Dogana in Venice. [I guess it's still available. Ask for it by name!]

Maybe Vo already had this whole Kreuk/Gemeentemuseum/lawsuit situation on his mind when he chose The Exorcist for his source material. Who knows? But the artwork parameters cited in the court's new ruling in Kreuk's lawsuit are intriguing enough to lay out, and at least give some though to the question: What Would Danh Vo Do?


On Kawara's One Million Years readings have always had a profound effect on me. From the first time I saw it at the Dia, to the resonance of One Million Years in Okwui Enwezor's Documenta 11 in 2002; to an installation at David Zwirner, to the reopening Stedelijk. It was Brian Sholis's moving account of reading with his then-fiancee Julia Ault at Zwirner that cemented my determination to read one day, too.

That day was April 5th, Easter Sunday. I had booked my wife and myself to read in the first shift, just as the Guggenheim opened. I'd already seen the museum's On Kawara retrospective, but on a day when there was no reading. These are some recollections and thoughts of the experience with the piece.

One Million Years and an unannounced roaming exhibition of one week's worth of date paintings in kindergarten classes are the two projects Kawara authorized to continue after his death last summer at age 29,771 days. Mary, who was coordinating production of One Million Years and prepping volunteers, took our picture when we sat down on the dais. She said the artist used to listen to recordings of One Million Years as he worked in his studio, and that the liked to have photos of the readers.

I had not anticipated such a thing, but now the entire project felt extremely personal. It was not just a performance, but a communication, a communion, with the artist himself. But not anymore, not for us. It turns out the Guggenheim was recording the reading, but only for exhibition documentation. Posthumous recordings like ours would not end up contributing to a "complete" recording. That aspect of the work, too, ended with the artist's death.

Still, as I'd expected, reading itself was a wonderful experience. I found it somehow meditative and exciting at the same time. I found myself thinking of the dates we were reading, long before modern humans, and their history, existed. Yet narrative was there; the numbers became their own narrative. There was suspense as we counted down to an even hundred. Symmetrical numbers, or pairs or trios of digits, or chains of multi-syllabics, felt momentous, like a winning poker hand. These numbers, these years, with literally no significance of their own had significance thrust upon them, at least for a few seconds, by being read aloud. It turns out long numbers are not usually read aloud.

The greatest thrill was the echo of the Guggenheim's rotunda. We sat on the ground floor, backs to the window, with loudspeakers flanking us, and our numbers seemed to ring out through the show. We took it slow and serious. We intoned, and I imagined how we must affect the reception of the rest of Kawara's works up the ramp. We contributed our small part to everyone else's enlightenment.

After we ended, we went through the show. We stopped on the way out to watch our replacements. Mary had said it's easy to tell when the readers are a couple. Inversely, it was immediately obvious that the two jokers after us were either breaking up, or didn't know each other and could not be bothered. Even on the rare numbers they didn't mumble away into nothing, you could barely hear them standing right in front of the dais.

But how was this really any different from our experience? In fact the sound from One Million Years never left the ground floor, and sometimes it hardly left the little stage. In the hard-surfaced cacophony of the rotunda, One Million Years was essentially lost. I felt very acutely the gap between our rewarding personal experience of performing and the empty opacity the being in the audience. Or of not even noticing the piece existed.


In glass half-full mode I considered this divergence alongside the rest of Kawara's practice, where dates and times and lists barely hint at the complexities of the artist's daily experience.

Did I say half-full? This comparison, along with some of Kawara's lesser known series [60s word diagrams, the coded letters, and of course, all the newspaper clippings in all the Today series boxes] made me wonder what there actually is to know? Frankly, I've begun to fear that under it all lurks an actual Message, hidden by Kawara, just waiting to be cracked. And that the profundity, the interpretation, the significance, will turn out to be all in our heads.

May 26, 2015


While I knew the basics of its origins, I did not know that qur'an means "recitation". From Oxford Islamic Studies:

Most members of the early Islamic community, including Muhammad, were illiterate. The new scripture was known as the qur'an (recitation) because believers learned it by listening to public readings and recitations. Many of Muhammad's followers committed the passages to memory. But the Prophet also commissioned many scribes to preserve the messages in writing. They recorded the words on a variety of available materials, including paper, stones, palm leaves, and pieces of leather.


By the time of Muhammad's death, several of his followers had memorized the entire Qur'an. Many of them, however, were killed in battle. Fearing that knowledge of the Qur'an might be lost, the leaders of the Islamic community decided to collect all the revelations, from both written and oral sources, and to compile an official version of the sacred text.

I was looking this up because several religious traditions include the public reading of sacred texts. When Okwui Enwezor introduced the concept behind the public reading of Karl Marx's Das Kapital at the Venice Biennale, he chose Sikhism:
Taking the concept of the Sikh event, the Akhand Path (a recitation of the Sikh holy book read continuously over several days by a relay of readers), Das Kapital will be read as a dramatic text by trained actors, directed by artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien, during the entire duration of this year Art Biennale.
This reading, Okwui explained, was the center of the center of the Biennale, and was inspired by the 1974 Biennale's condemnation of the [US-backed] coup in Chile on Sept 11, 1973 and its oppressive aftermath:
The dedication of the program of events to Chile and against fascism remains one of the most explicit attempts, in recent memory, by which an exhibition of the stature of the Art Biennale not only responds to, but courageously steps forward to share the historical stage with the political and social contexts of its time. It goes without saying that, in view of the current turmoil around the world, that the Biennale's Eventi del 1974 has been a curatorial inspiration."

"In response to this remarkable episode and the rich documentation it generated, the 56th International Art Exhibition: All the World's Futures, will introduce the ARENA, an active space dedicated to continuous live programming across disciplines and located within the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. The linchpin of this program will be the epic live reading of all three volumes of Karl Marx's Das Kapital (Capital). Here, Das Kapital will serve as a kind of Oratorio that will be continuously read live, throughout the exhibition's seven months' duration."

"Designed by award-winning Ghanaian/British architect David Adjaye, the ARENA will serve as a gathering-place of the spoken word, the art of the song, recitals, film projections, and a forum for public discussions.
And so the linchpin of the Biennale's central programming space dedicated to the Biennale that courageously stepped forward to explicitly attempt to share the stage with the political and social context of the time is a religiously inspired recitation of a venerated text.

I had barely finished watching Enwezor say these words at the Biennale Press Preview when it was reported that Venetian government officials had ordered the Icelandic Pavilion to close immediately, because they disapproved of Christoph Büchel's artwork, The Mosque. The full title is The Mosque: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice, but the website for The Mosque, which was created in collaboration with the Islamic Communities of Venice and Iceland, calls it Misericordia Mosque & Islamic Cultural Centre Venice, after the deconsecrated Catholic church Iceland rented for their pavilion.

The Mosque was contested before it opened, for the two weeks it was open, and for the several days it has been closed. Icelandic Art Center officials say the city kept changing the terms and throwing up successive obstacles beforehand, and were determined to shut it down. In the face of this resolve, it seems almost irrelevant to debate whatever pretexts were finally used. Büchel saw this coming when others did not. A sympathetic local law professor told the NYT:

Venice is without a doubt the most tolerant city in Italy and proud of it, and so I think it's the wrong place to make this kind of statement."

Mr. Büchel said he had seen little evidence of such tolerance in his dealings with the city over the mosque.

Similarly predictable and irrelevant: answering the moralistic scoldings and second-guessings of art world critics eager to disapprove of Büchel's confrontational hyper-realities.

Büchel's art didn't float an argument or evoke a narrative; he made a real situation. The Mosque posed a non-hypothetical moral test, which politicians and pundits alike are lining up to spectacularly fail.

The worst failure of all, though, would be the Biennale itself. Would be, or already is. Eiríkur Thorláksson, the Chairman of the Icelandic Art Center, said:

Most disappointingly, the administration of La Biennale di Venezia, an institution within the City of Venice, has not supported this artistic endeavor in the way that would have been expected for an organization of its stature and proclaimed advocacy of contemporary art.
The Times reported that neither Enwezor nor Biennale president Paolo Barrata had made any public statements of support for Büchel or The Mosque, even though the Icelandic Pavilion is part of the official Biennale program.

If Biennale officials are indifferent, they are complicit in The Mosque's unjust and unwise censorship. If they are actively maneuvering to thwart The Mosque and keep it closed, they are betraying the very mission Enwezor announced for himself and his exhibition, and hollowing out its lofty pretensions. If they are constrained by some unseen political situations, they should call it out.

But what Enwezor could really do is embrace The Mosque, and make its successful realization the center of his Biennale. I don't presume to know how to achieve this. My first impulse was to move The Mosque to the ARENA somehow. But the actual Venetian Muslims attending and operating The Mosque are not actors or props performing their prayers for an art world audience. They have autonomy. So ask them. Have Büchel ask. Maybe it'd work somehow. Or maybe the pavilion could reopen without the spectators. Why does The Mosque have to be a spectacle? The important thing now is that it's there. And it is the political and social context of our time.

UPDATE: After I posted this, Cristina Ruiz from The Art Newspaper tweeted about another Venice Biennale work I've been thinking of, and which didn't quite fit here: Gregor Schneider's Venice Cube, a large, draped sculpture inspired by the Kaba'a, which was to be installed in the Piazza San Marco in 2005. Gareth Harris's July 2005 TAN article on its fate is very relevant [pdf via gregor-schneider.deVenice Cube was rejected. Harris reports that Rosa Martinez, the co-curator who commissioned Venice Cube, "was not permitted to argue her case directly with the city authorities and later with the Ministry of Culture"; these discussions were held by the Biennale president, then Davide Croff. Today the president is Paolo Baratta, whose decision, actions, inactions, and present silence shame the principles and the institution of the Biennale.

We'll talk about this in the morning.

Chris Burden, Modified Moon Piece, 2010 image: manpodcast


November 2011: This was sitting right there in the first episode of Modern Art Notes Podcast, waiting. And even though he wouldn't tell me who the guest was, Tyler had been goading me before the launch, that I better listen, there is a surprise. Because he knew about the satelloons.

And I did not know about Chris Burden's unrealized 1986 proposal for The Moon Piece, which is basically to launch the biggest possible spherical inflatable mylar balloon satellite into orbit.

Which was basically the same idea I'd had four years earlier. Or nineteen years later, depending on who's counting.

Or was it? Maybe it's fine? Maybe it's different? Relationship status: it's complicated. Green teed the question about Burden wanting to build something like the Eiffel Tower. And in discussing The Moon Piece Burden said it could be a giant spherical balloon or an even more "giant parabolic mirror you could control." Which, if you made it about "the size of Lake Havasu," [78 km2, btw. -ed.], you could use to "light [all of] New York from above."

So maybe it's not a satelloon at all, then. And he's talking about something permanent, and big enough to light cities from space. This sounds like the Russian thing. Except it can't be, at least not originally. Green cited a 1988 interview with Paul Schimmel as the source for this proposal. And solar mirrors didn't really show up until the 90s. Russia ran a proof-of-concept solar mirror program called Znamya from 1992-99 which, it was hoped, would boost solar power production and bring light to darkest Siberia. But it only had one success: a 20-meter-diameter mirror launched in 1992 which produced a 5km-wide beam as bright as the full moon. Later, scientists at Livermore Lab proposed massive solar mirrors as one extreme technological approach to geo-engineering humanity's way out of the climate change crisis. So this solar mirror aspect is different, maybe an adaptation, an addition, and it shows the artist was keeping tabs on things. But Burden's original The Moon Piece idea is/was a satelloon.

It turns out Burden first pitched The Moon Piece in a letter to Edward Fry, who was co-curating Documenta 8 (1987) The letter was [first?] published in the appendix of the amazing 2005 monograph, Chris Burden. [Which I bought in 2008, but didn't read all the way, even after getting more into his work in 2009.]:

[The satellite's] "only function and purpose would be to reflect light back to earth. This special satellite would function much in the same manner that our present moon reflects sunlight. I foresee that this huge satellite could be manufactured out of fairly inexpensive, highly reflective Mylar film and be carried into outer space in a deflated state (like an uninflated balloon).


The Moon Piece will be highly visible to the naked eye and appear, in relation to the pin points of starlight, as a bright automobile headlamp moving rapidly across the night sky, one-fifth to one-tenth the size of the moon. The most sophisticated and the most primitive of cultures will be aware that something has changed in the heavens.


This is not simply a conceptual project. This project is technically feasible and to function as a work of art it must be actualized.


Obviously more research and information needs to be done on the specifics of the Mylar balloon such as size, thickness of Mylar, weight, etc., but I believe that The Moon Piece is physically and financially feasible given enough energy. If this idea, of putting into orbit a highly reflective satellite that would light up the heavens, could come to fruition I believe it would well be worth the effort.

On the one hand, it's nice to feel like you're on the same wavelength with someone whose work and career you admire. On the other hand, damn.


But some things stood out. Like Burden "foreseeing" the possibility of the satellite's existence, and not knowing any of "the specifics." Is it possible that Burden really did not know that these exact objects had already been created and deployed in the 1960s, when he was a teenager? I can't believe it. Was it not important to his concept, or his pitch, to reference their historical sources, or their current non-art uses? Apparently.

And he adapted The Moon Piece, which began with the assumption that after 20 years, an inflatable satellite could be bigger, and after 30 years it could be bigger still. Or it could use future-state-of-the-art technology and be a mirror as big as a lake. Burden's constants were big, reflective, and in space. But other than that, the 2010-11 version didn't sound any further along than 1986's.

Thumbnail image for exhib_space_install_01.jpg

A few months later (in 2012) I was working on making and showing a satelloon at apexart in New York, and I uncovered aspects of satelloons and their history that mattered. The concept had originated with none other than Wernher von Braun, who proposed, not a new moon, but a new, "American Star" which would awe the lesser nations into supporting the US in the Korean War. Von Braun wrote that in a widely published Time | Life book on space travel. Burden's language about "primitive cultures" knowing "something has changed in the heavens is straight from von Braun's pitch. The NASA engineer who had claimed the most credit for Project Echo came up with the idea at von Braun's V-2 rocket conference. It was OK'd after Sputnik because US military leaders wanted a visible satellite would normalize people to the presence of spy satellites and surveillance.

This is context I only pieced together after five years of researching. Burden missed or omitted not just this, but the very existence of Project Echo, when he proposed Moon Piece for Documenta1. Would it have turned up in Kassel? How would that've gone over? I can't even imagine.

Except that I did, and I still do. My apexart experience has made me very wary of satelloons, which are seductive, but also politically problematic. Their beauty and surface make them impossible to ignore, which makes it worse. I've also found that where I once felt daunted and insecure about having the same idea as a major artist I admired, I am OK with it. Partly because I realized my project is better.

And that, plus a $25,000 Marquis Jet card, can get you to Basel. Burden nailed it the first time: this is not a conceptual project, destined merely for Hans Ulrich's files. It must be actualized. And so it's especially unfortunate that Burden, whose genius was superlative physicality, can't see The Moon Piece in the sky himself.

After hearing about The Moon Piece, Green's follow-up question was whether Burden would be OK with people "mining his files" to produce his unrealized projects "after you're no longer with us." It's a conversation that obviously sounds very different now than it did in 2011, which is just one reason it's taken me more than a week to write this blog post. "if somebody wanted to do that after I'm not around, that'd be fantastic," Burden said. "I think that's why people become artists, you know. To have a life beyond them. I mean, it's a way to become immortal."


The Project Echo satellites stayed in orbit for five and eight years before gravity pulled them into the earth's atmosphere. It's not quite immortality, but it's a start.

Related, devastatingly: Chris Burden dies at 69 [latimes]
2007: If I were a sculptor, but then again
2013: Exhibition Space []
Listen to the entire discussion between Chris Burden and Tyler Green on Episode 1 of MANPodcast [manpodcast]
Or listen to the 3:00 MANPodcast excerpt where Burden & Green talk about The Moon Piece [dropbox, 4.6Mb mp3]

[1] What did Burden end up showing in Documenta 8, anyway? I have found him listed in the participating artists on Documenta's own site, as showing "audio". Of Burden's four pre-1987 audio works, only The Atomic Alphabet and Send Me Your Money, both 1979, seem likely. For his part, the artist's official CV only mentions Documenta 6, in 1977. Fry was the American co-curator on both.

I'm really stoked to contribute a top ten list to UbuWeb this month.

When Kenny Goldsmith invited me to submit a list, I first tried to come up with some new, revealing, conceptual strategy for generating it. I thought of the top ten most viewed items, and then the ten least viewed. But then I learned that Ubu doesn't keep logs. I thought of the ten largest files, but then figured it'd just be the longest movies, and big whoop. I thought of a top ten list of top ten lists. And when I worried that I would just be mirroring some taste or trend, I thought of identifying the ten items most frequently included in other peoples' lists. Several more ideas were patiently disabused out of me, and I began running through my chance operations options.

Then I realized I'd already begun making my list, starting back in 2002, when I linked to from my blog for the first time. Ubu at that point was still quite mysterious, and much smaller--mostly ancient and arcane concrete poetry reprints I frankly hadn't heard of. But I kept coming back. A huge collection of video and audio appeared, Kenneth Goldsmith came out from behind the curtain, seeming much older and august in my mind than he turned out to be--I imagined he was a survivor of this lost underground scene, not an explorer.

Anyway, I assembled my list from twelve years links here at, highlights from my life with UbuWeb. They're roughly chronological which has become an indispensable collaborator, not just a source of discovery and inspiration.

March 10, 2014

Rem Casafresca


The Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens in June, held a press conference today with curator Rem Koolhaas and Paolo Baratta. The event was streamed live online. As @kieranlong pointed out on Twitter:

Intrigued, I quickly tuned in to the event, already in progress. The average age of the large crowd of press/reporters looked to be well over 60yo, and their questions were often longer than Koolhaas's answers, which were simultaneously translated by a rotating cast of female voices. It really was a mess.

The first words I heard set the tone:

So I decided to livetweet it.

With a couple of brief exceptions the text comes only from Koolhaas. I don't type very fast, and I can't figure out the keyboard shortcuts for accents, but otherwise I think this transcript captures the experience of watching quite well:


So like you, I'm sure, I was baffled and amused listening to avant-garde cellist and frequent Nam June Paik collaborator Charlotte Moorman's answering machine recording on Ubu.

It takes a minute to get your bearings, and then you realize it really is John Lennon complaining about a review in the Village Voice by "a couple of bastards, whoever they are," and also mentioning an ad Yoko placed in the same issue.

And then there's a spitting mad John Cage demanding Charlotte or Howard Wise write a letter to the Village Voice "protesting Fred McDarrah's censorship of my name from that article, or I'm never doing anything for you or anybody else ever again," which, hello, what?

What had Cage been so ignominiously ignored in? It wasn't even clear what year the tape was from, though Moorman's callers mention Thanksgiving [and the recording title says Nov. 24 - Dec. 6]. If Howard Wise was mentioned, perhaps it was Moorman's performance of a Cage composition at the gallery.

Well, stop worrying, because Lennon's reference to Ono's ad means it's 1971, when Ono advertised her own One Woman Show at The Museum of Modern Art, and its accompanying catalogue, even though the museum was not on board with it.

Ono hired a guy with a sandwich board to walk around in front of the Modern for two weeks, Dec. 1-15, advertising a show that was technically not inside. [Though it confused enough people, apparently, that the membership desk put a little sign up, with Ono's ad, saying "This is not here," which was, by so doing, no longer true.] Anyway, the citation given for Ono's Voice ad is usually Dec. 2, 1971. And the ad does run in that issue.

But the version Lennon was calling Moorman about, "on page 31," was actually from the week prior, Nov. 25. It's up top, reproduced, I believe, for the first time online, not counting Google's still unindexed archive of the Village Voice. NBD.

Which is where Fred McDurrah's article is found, too. It was a report from Moorman's 8th Annual Avant Garde Festival, a roving project that infuriated and entertained the small New York art world with impressive regularity. 1971's version was held in the 69th Regiment Armory, and was backed by Barbara & Howard Wise. McDarrah's ostentatiously jaded account was meant to disparage the multi-media, performative, absurdist circus, but he actually makes it sound kind of interesting. Or maybe reading about it now, during Frieze Week, it just seems normal.

McDarrah writes that Moorman secured the Armory by promising "the Colonel in charge" that there would be "no nudes, no sex, no politics, no dope, no nothing." Not all of her artist invitees seem to have gotten the message.

I looked at my watch and decided it was time to ask the soldiers the standard "what-do-you-think-of-this-stuff question...A veteran of all the wars who was covered with stars, badges, ribbons, buttons, and braid summarized his feelings: "It's ridiculous, stupid, the whole damn thing. All those people smoking marijuana back there. I saw them. And using a federal building too. A bunch of kooks. I could bow them bastards to hell. I'd go up in the balcony with a machine gun. I even saw some naked. I'm glad I'm being transferred out."
Yow, OK then. Did New York's know how close it came to starring in an art world-meets-Kent State-themed prequel of Inglourious Basterds?

Anyway, sure enough, Cage isn't mentioned anywhere. Though he's probably glad to have missed the near massacre. In another, later message on Moorman's machine, a calmer, more sheepish Cage apologies for not attending a big event, so I'm going to guess that it was Cage's composition, not his presence, that was snubbed. Unless it was Cage who McDarrah called Moorman about; he left his own message when he heard he'd misidentified someone sitting "cross-legged in the corner and mix[ing] his 'ohms' into the abysmal hum and drone of 1000 sounds" as Steve Reich.

And it turns out all I had to do was look a little further. Because computer artist Fred Stern, who did get namechecked in the Voice article, turned Moorman's recording into a slideshow, synced with clippings and snapshots. Very helpful.

Charlotte Moorman's Answering Machine Message Tape [youtube]

The idea that 10 years from now--10 months from now--people will keep talking about an artist from Switzerland who landed in the middle of Forest Houses and for 77 days brought a different image of reality, that's the real monument. It may not trigger a vocation, but it might trigger new ways of seeing reality and thinking that might not have been imaginable before. And maybe it'll give us all, residents and non-residents of Forest Houses, the confidence that we can have an idea, have a project of our own, have a mission in life.
From Paul Schmelzer's great q&a with Dia's Philippe Vergne about Thomas Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument.

Vergne has interesting things to say about Dia, too, and how a seemingly temporary project like Gramsci fits into its core tradition of commissioning and exhibiting ambitious artist projects.

The Momentary Monument | Philippe Vergne on Thomas Hirschhorn's Ode to Gramsci []

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Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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eBay Test Listings
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It Narratives, incl.
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Standard Operating Procedure
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CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
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