Elmgreen + Dragset + Me: The Not-Fit-To-Print Interview


Right after their installation, End Station, opened at the Bohen Foundation (415 West 13th Street, Tu-Sa 12-5), I did a back and forth email interview with Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset for the NY Times. The paper ended up reviewing the installation and not using this piece [I’ll get you, Roberta Smith! And your little– oh, never mind.], so here it is in its entirety, cleaned it up a bit, but with all my essay questions in their full, self-important glory.

GA: When did you know you would create a subway platform?
E+D: The Bohen foundation is located in the heart of the Meat Packing district, a once seedy area now packed with exclusive membership clubs and high end fashion stores. We lived around the corner only six years ago, and remember a considerably bigger amount of exposed flesh around – both animal and human.
We were toying with the idea of recreating something of the lost, recent history, but soon found it a bit too obvious and deadpan to just restage one of the old dirty bars which used to be in the area.
GA:So was there an initial idea or discussion to recreate a sex club? It seems like that would be within the scope of your early work together in the Powerless Structures series, which made references to queer space and the issues of gender-identified architecture and constructs. Still, I can understand if the Bohen Foundation didn’t want people hooking up in their basement.
E+D: We somehow wanted to dig a bit deeper (no pun intended) into “the erroneous machinery” of one’s memory. We wanted to make something that could somehow show in what ways we carry images in our minds that are no longer actual or accurate – how memory plays tricks with us – and we came up with the idea to build up a 13th St subway stop that had never existed. It seemed more interesting to us to address questions of history, memory and gentrification through this kind of falsification and by displacement rather than through a direct and totally realistic recreation of something from the past.
GA: Did it emerge from a story or narrative, or did you conceive a narrative in order to drive the work?
E+D: The fact that the whole situation was invented, gave us more freedom in regard to creating a narrative with both personal and historic references – mixed up and confused.
But in the end the main narrative might be the one that unfolds itself as the spectator goes down the stairs inside an art space and suddenly finds him- or herself situated on a platform, performing the role of a passenger waiting for a train that obviously never will arrive. The longer you stay down there, the more you fulfill this role. The more you look for details, cues and fakes, the more you add to the (sur)realism of the situation.
The platforms function as two stages. One you can enter, the other one is more of a denial. You stay on one stage looking at the mirror image on the other side, but there is no one to return your gaze. Suddenly the phone on the other side might start ringing.
GA: That�s happened to me! What’s more common, though, is that those phones were always busted.
How did you do it? Did you research it, study photographs, etc?

E+D: We did do quite a bit of research, of course, but since the aim was never to meticulously recreate a specific historical station, we didn�t exaggerate this part of the process. Besides visiting some crucial web pages and the MTA museum, the research was pretty easy, since we use the subway anyway. ( And one thing that we found out is that there actually are New Yorkers that have never been down in a subway station!)
You can sometimes get a more precise image of things when you create them from a recollection. Probably we could have had the MTA provide us with more exact materials for making a subway station, but then you would just go down there and say: hey they made a subway station and there would be nothing more to it than that. Real train bumpers, for instance, look nothing like the image we have in our heads of train bumpers. They have colors, shapes and materials that we associate completely differently to. We also chose to use the good old 5 by 8 subway tile, although the square ones have been common for years. After all the work is about how memory functions not the subway system’s technical parts.
GA: Mentioning the tiles reminds me of the architectural specificity of places and what it means. Because of the MTA’s own station renovation plans, some more marginal stations were left in this 1980’s era condition until even very recently. (I don’t know, maybe there are even still actual vintage unrestored stations out there somewhere.) But if a subway station still looked like this, it was because it had been ignored or given a low priority for renovation for some reason.
There are a couple other stations (like mine on the upper east side) that are very distinct 1970’s era stations. Ours was designed by Philip Johnson, in fact; it’s deep and all bright orange tile. Hmm. there isn’t actually a question here…
Did you visit the NY subway at that era yourself, did you interview/discuss with people who were in the city at the time? [part of the question is, is it a recollection or a memory, and if so, whose is it?]

E+D: There are various artifacts in the installation hinting back to a time period from the beginning of the 80’s up to the mid 90’s. None of us visited New York before ’92, so of course we had to confer with people that lived in NY at the time. We also got good information from places like Printed Matter. The images of New York belong to everyone not only the New Yorkers – in that perspective the city differs from all other cities. There are parts of the city’s history that are so well mediated, and reproduced over and over again, that it sticks in our heads for ever. Even when reality has changed completely, we sometimes choose to stick to these iconographic images that were created maybe more than 20 years ago. Many tourists go to New York with a romantic, outdated image of a much wilder city in mind.
GA: When I first moved to the city, I was told that if you read the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal, you were just inviting someone to rob you. You should read only the Post, or if you didn’t want anyone to bother you, you should read the Bible or, in extreme cases, talk to yourself very loudly to make people think you were crazy. Now I see people using their laptop on the subway and I wonder, “Am I the only one thinking about stealing that guy’s laptop?” Hmm. Another long non-question.
In addition to realizing a physical environment, there seems to be a cultural or political environment, too. How did that figure into the piece?

E+D: Well, like a lot of our previous projects this installation is also about public space and how public space is laid out and in what ways we as citizens interact with it – how its design reflects certain power structures which influence our behavioral patterns. We don’t do the same things in public as we do in private – or at least most of us don’t.
We were once taking the subway towards downtown and got rather surprised (as the uptight Northern Europeans we are) by a female passenger suddenly starting to cut her toe nails inside the train car – something you would never experience in a German U-bahn. But the perception of public space in New York and what you are allowed to do in public seems to have changed, too – after Giuliani, after September 11th, after the gentrification of first SoHo, then Chelsea and Harlem and now Meat Pack, hasn’t it? Homeless being pushed out of the city and no sleazy business ’round the corner anymore.
In the 80’s, subways were a main spot for graffiti artists and we invited one guy from the first generation of street artists, Coco 144, and one from the second generation, Ghost, to do a few of their old tricks. Guys who have been part of inventing the styles that the kids today are inspired by. The tags appear very discreetly within the installation, in an almost symbolic way, just enough to get a clue. It’s kind of an extracted image of the real thing. Like the trash which has been thrown onto the tracks and the waste in the trash cans. By not overfilling the space and making the scenario totally realistic we hope that the spectator actually will get a change to experience both the graphic beauty of the graffiti and will be able to notice the character of the various items of waste. If you take a closer look you will be able to discover a New York Times showing the first article on HIV and another one with Reagan on the front page. You’ll find Tab soda cans and Colt .45 bottles, a MoMA paper bag from a Picasso exhibition in ’87, along with injection needles, a single old school Converse sneaker, condoms and cigarette butts.
[GA: So maybe people ARE supposed to be hooking up in the Bohen Foundation’s basement?]
E+D: On the walls there is a Guerrilla Girls poster and some Act Up stickers. If you spend more time down there, a lot of small historic traces will unveil themselves.
GA: Although there is some very authentic looking trash around, it feels very clean! cleaner than I remember, anyway. And it doesn’t smell (yet).
E+D: It’s like a dream, isn’t it – dreams are also odor free! It’s a ghost station, remember.
Someone also claimed that they missed the rats! Imagine having a rat running around down there. The whole thing would have turned into an animal rights debate. At the last Venice Biennial we engaged a chimpanzee, teaching her to spell the word UTOPIA by stacking blocks with letters on in the right order.
Goodness, what a drama this created – a whole bejeweled army in Prada stilettos started to threaten us and the curators with law suits and demonstrations, and we had to cancel the whole thing after a few performances, though the chimpanzee and its trainer had been together for 20 years and done hundreds of performances throughout this period. The monkey was even a former movie star! The hysteria was pretty stressful and we decided never to include live animals in our shows again. Mostly we prefer to give just a few hints. We wouldn’t say that we work in a Minimalist tradition, we just like to use as few and simple elements as possible to tell a story.
GA: When I found myself trying to identify the dates on the NYT and the KFC bucket on the tracks, I stopped myself and thought (no offense, seriously. Seriously.) of Oliver Stone. For his Vietnam-era movie, Born on The Fourth of July, there were stories of how meticulous he was to recreate the vintage cigarette lighters for characters in the background. Things that no one would ever notice, but that were meant to signify authenticity and accuracy. [Of course, so did the stories about the lighters. And of course, the entire larger story of the war and the politics of it was completely warped and distorted and inaccurate.] I guess I don’t what the question is. Surprise.
E+D: Not big Oliver Stone fans, we must admit! We more thought of Schumacher’s Falling Down, if any movie. Love the way it describes how the big dramas often are triggered by some random and totally insignificant incidents. We do stuff in our lives because of so many unexplainable reasons. Because we were fascinated by a particular color on someone’s towel on the beach when we were seven years old. Or because we like the smell of gasoline, or because we couldn’t spell correctly when were kids or because we once read a philosophy text and had a complete misinterpretation of it.
G+A: How did you collaborate with the Foundation and what, if anything do you think the piece says about them? I can think of a couple of things: the grating on the main floor (which I believe was pre-existing, right?) does remind me of a subway or street grating already, Meanwhile, although the installation is very realistically a subway station, it is also a white cube; it makes at least some references to the exhibition spaces of galleries and museums (something you have explored regularly in your work). So the most public of spaces-a train station-is now in one of the most private of institutions: a foundation. Maybe this is just me trying to sound smart, but all these new questions are like essays.
[This is when the Times killed the story, so we paused there.]
Other E+D interviews: by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Daniel Birnbaum