Unfinished Work: A Roundtable on L’informe
with Aria Dean, Bruce Hainley, Ruba Katrib, Emmanuel Olunkwa, and Lauren O'Neill-Butler
“It’s easy to recognize specters of Bataille’s thought today, for better and for worse.”
Can you talk about what it takes to work at the various scales you’ve operated in? How do you think about the sculptural process, and how do you think about film? And their intersection?
Sculpture has always been the priority for me. In that sense, the video work has been a means toward a sculptural end. My use of video started as a documentary tool with the Drawing Restraints, and grew slowly into a more narrative tool.The narratives were always in service of the object, though the location of the intersection has changed. The Jim Otto installations in the early ’90s had a more 1:1 relationship, where the video and the object were installed in proximity and the relationship between the action and object were more explicit. The Cremaster Cycle expanded those relationships and created more space and complexity between the object and narrative. The relationships were less direct and more of a network. I started showing the films in cinemas and installing the sculpture without the presence of the film as a way of creating more space. As the projects continued to gain scale and complexity, the network kept expanding.
With this—you've taken on these massive world building projects that span the screen and gallery. Where do you generally begin when it comes to setting out to imagine any one of these worlds? Thinking about the expansiveness of Cremaster Cycle for instance, or the depth and gargantuan scale of River of Fundament.
The Cremaster Cycle began with an interest in making a work about place and questions about site specificity. I wanted to create a larger form that would span over a sequence of sites, where the narrative would grow locally out of each site. So, I started locally. I spent time in each location researching local mythologies and the places and materials they inhabited. I wrote and developed the chapters of Cremaster one by one as I produced them. In that sense the narrative arc of the larger form developed more slowly and continued to mutate as each local narrative came into focus. I get the feeling that episodic television these days is often produced this way, where the production is concurrent with the writing. For sure there were logistical and financial limitations that led me to structure the project that way, but it also led to a way of working more organically, and a way of keeping the narrative more open and less fixed, leaving space for the larger project to function more sculpturally.
River of Fundament started with a challenge from Norman Mailer. He suggested his book Ancient Evenings to me and thought I might be interested in taking it on cinematically, but I wasn’t really thinking about filmmaking at that time. After working together on The Cremaster Cycle, Jonathan Bepler and I had started kicking around the idea of making a live work, and one that would take on the form of opera in some way. So, Mailer’s book was the starting point for the libretto. In a sense, abstracting a novel didn’t feel much different from abstracting a location the way I had in Cremaster, but what felt different was the form of collaboration that River of Fundament required. The element of opera, or the one Jonathan and I chose to explore, meant that the music and visual form needed to develop simultaneously, which was challenging. Workshopping scenes and ideas became pretty useful, and I hadn’t done much of that before. Jonathan had more experience with that. We made a performance in my studio with some of the ideas we were considering, and later made another one at the Manchester Festival in 2007. This felt provisional but was useful in answering some of the bigger questions about the structure that the project would eventually take. We then made site-specific live performances in Los Angeles in 2008, and in Detroit in 2010, thinking that the entire piece would be made through a series of live works. I started editing the material we had from those performances and started feeling that the work needed a more focused point of view in order to come together as a cohesive whole. That year we made an open workshop performance at the Holland Festival and developed some scenes, which would be staged for the camera. To bring together what we had learned from the live work with what we already knew from working cinematically was satisfying, and the hybridity of the final form that River of Fundament took felt more resolved to me.
What are your top ten favorite materials? Could be ones that you've used in your work, or just encountered along the way.
Of your top 10 materials, is there one that is the most important to you? What initially drew you to materials in the way that you use them? What draws you to thinking about making objects in this material-forward way?
Right. I think that the first round of materials in the bodies of work that were made around ’91, ’92, ’93 came out of an athletic world. They were coming out of the locker room and the training room and the kind of equipment and protection that's used. I'm an athlete, so I think as I was making Drawing Restraints, and starting to make those more athleticized pieces. I was also drawing from a kind of range of materials that belong to that world. On one hand, I could say that, in that sense, those materials were familiar to me, but I think it had more to do with the sort of prosthetic quality of them, whether interior or exterior—and probably more meaningfully, the potential for an interiority with that material.
I think when I was making those Otto vs Houdini pieces, I was working in a more intuitive way in terms of writing and storytelling with that work. One thing I think I did know was the internal body. I think that’s why horror was so important to me during that time—especially body horror.
Can you say more about the idea of an interiority of the materials? Do you mean this in an animistic sense? That these prosthetics, and inorganic materials have some sort of inner life of their own?
I was also thinking a lot about Joseph Beuys at the time. And the way that the objects from his performances had to pass through the body of work. The transformations might be quite slight. It's often a raw material that's exhibited, but it has passed through an action, and so it had changed. That appealed to me; it was something that I related to in terms of the way my body had been used up to that point in my life—in the athletic sense—and how it's a kind of receiver and a transformer for something else. I started focusing more on art making and thinking about transforming material into something else.
My body became the tool for that. It isn't so much about the fact that Teflon can be put inside your body without creating a problem. It’s more how the body can function as a transformer. These things lead to the question of scale. If the interior of the body could become the site of transformation, then the scale could change.
Scale of the body or of the external object?
The scale of the understanding of sculpture, the way that the objects in space can function. I think for the scale to shift, the space needs to become the body, or the landscape must become the body.
What you're saying about the body as a transformer—I always find it interesting how each individual artist understands themselves, and where they stand in relationship to the objects that they're making. It can be a cipher for a larger understanding of the body or the self in relationship to things at large. What you were saying resonates with the way a lot of artists whose work that I like talk about themselves and their objects: transformer, filter, screen, conduit, and so on. It's this relation to the work that moves away from a view of the artist-as-subject making object-for-audience. This other way creates a different, flexible, kind of elastic scale of working, as you say. I also was curious: you said your writing and storytelling process was very intuitive in your earlier years in the earlier 1990s. It sounds like you feel like you've moved away from that and moved towards another mode. Have you?
I think it has to do with the move toward cinematic space and the collaborations involved in that, and working at that scale. In that sense, there’s the need for a common language which, for me, has developed over the years in different ways. But it became clear quickly that I needed to move away from the kind of language that I was using when I was organizing those earlier pieces and use something more legible for everybody involved.
Were you always like, “Oh yeah, like I would like to do larger cinematic projects?” In that early 1990s period, I know there was video stuff, but were you like, “Yes. Cremaster scale world-building is the goal!” Or did it kind of emerge over time?
It evolved, for sure. I would say that things started out more in the language of an earthwork type of “site” and “non-site” relationship in that Cremaster 1 was made on the Isle of Man. My intention for that first piece was to show it on television, to broadcast it as a non-site. I couldn't make that happen. I went to BBC, and I went to Channel 4, and they were not interested in the idea. But that was the structure for me–a broadcast language in 4:3. So, they have a kind of broader narrative form, but it wasn't yet functioning as cinema. That came later in the process, probably around Cremaster 5. So, it evolved, it was an organic process through that project.
Was there something in particular about Cremaster 5 that shifted it?
I think that that piece, which was staged at an opera house in Budapest was intentionally taking on a more Baroque language and willfully going into some territory that I had avoided. I thought a lot about how embarrassing that piece was as it was developing. It was kind of going into spaces, languages, and styles that I really don't like. It was exciting to me; the piece was very much about letting go. I kind of wanted that out of the last station of Cremaster. I think part of that was kind of going for it in terms of melodrama and, uh, and in some ways a more kind of cinematic art.
Was melodrama one of the things that you were not into that you found yourself engaging with more? I guess if you could say a bit about that process of making work, coming to terms with having to wade into things that you never set out to touch. . .
Both as a structure and as a concept, the fifth Cremaster was sort of always about letting go. I believe that I went to Budapest looking for a bath house and I found some very beautiful bath houses there. And while looking at them, I started looking at other places around the city and ended up in the opera house, which is all red and gold—it's a Baroque opera house. I walked in there and it just felt so far from the kind of sensibility that I was working with.
I’ve also always had an issue with the color red. At the time it just sort of felt completely illegal to me somehow. Just walking into that room, I realized that I kind of had to go there. The development of the piece followed that. I started working with Jonathan Bepler on an opera that would really quote that nineteenth century style. I think it was deeply embarrassing for both of us.
What you’re saying seems to resonate with the idea of “restraint” that runs through your work. There are certain things that are allowed and then you remove obstacles over the course of time, as needed. You talked about your interest in the first Cremaster airing on television and being drawn to the format of opera. And it makes me wonder about your relationship to mass culture—the transmission of cultural objects through mass communication mediums. You’re interested in these very public modes, then you also make sculptures for exhibition spaces.
With television, is part of the appeal that you can really reach a public—whether that is a political, populist thing, or just that conceptually it offers a different kind of immediate, simultaneous presence and collective experience of that “object”?
I definitely identify as a sculptor and I always have, but I'm also not particularly interested in autonomous objects. I'm more and more interested in the space between them, installation strategies and the relationship between the rooms and objects in the rooms. So, I think the way that these distribution channels work and, originally with Cremaster, the way that the film would be in an art house cinema across town, and there'd be an exhibition at a gallery. I was very interested in that proximity and distance and how the text could be displaced in some way. I think it certainly has to do with that site/non-site idea that continues to interest me. Even the sort of episodic nature of River of Fundament carried that forward into a set of actions.
So, is there a single Matthew Barney universe that all your artistic production exists in, or are there multiple distinct worlds (Would you even call them worlds? Or projects? Bodies of work)?
I don’t tend to think of the works as autonomous from one another, although they are understood and exhibited that way. At the core, I think of my creative language as being rather formless. The narratives and sites serve as temporary host bodies for my language. Once the story is completed, the guest looks for a new host.
In the past you've often inquired into gender, sexuality, the body at large, and masculinity in your work, and you've done so deftly. It's interesting how the contemporary landscape has mutated (or tried to mutate) over the years, especially about those words. But you've always done a complicated, cool dance with that stuff. Yours is a steady hand amidst a lot of chaos. Looking back, how would you contextualize your interest in these concepts?
What comes to mind first is the body horror of the ’80s. I’m thinking of the early Cronenberg films like The Brood and Videodrome, Carpenter’s The Thing, Raimi’s Evil Dead series. It was cathartic to see bodies transform in that way during that time. They were made in the wake of the AIDS crisis, and in that sense the viral character in these films were a manifestation of the horror of AIDS. But these onscreen transformations were liberating, too, for me anyway, as it had a lot of potential—it imagined an alternative to the limited ways of imaging the body. My first exhibitions were carrying forward some of the things I was thinking about as a student in the ’80s. With the Jim Otto works I was trying to make a non-binary system, while framing it with the binary language of athletics. I wanted to make a narrative system where the gender of the protagonists could fluctuate with changes in the environment. In those years there was a lot of discussion around hybridity. The ideas of the Semiotext(e) writers were being thrown around in classes and studios. I got interested in a psychoanalyst named Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, who was focused on creativity in the perverse mind. In her case studies she wrote about the desire her patients had to erode difference in their imagination between developmental states, genders, and generations. She described their desire as an internal grinder that would macerate the world around them, creating an undifferentiated mass. That image stuck with me.
To me, there is also something uniquely American in the way these things—and others that show up in the work; from vast concepts like myth and nature to specific aesthetics like car culture, football, infrastructure, and industry—are approached, as well as how they're used as material. Do you feel like an American artist? What does America mean within the Matthew Barney universe if anything at all? How has this shifted over time?
Yes, I do feel like an American artist, and even more so recently. My last film, Redoubt, made me think more carefully about some of the themes and dynamics I have been carrying with me throughout my life and enacting in my art. The debate over the reintroduction of wolves in central Idaho and Wyoming played out throughout my teenage years in the ’80s in Idaho, and made clear how extremely divided the state was, politically. It made a strong impression on me then, and as the divisions in the country have widened in recent years this subject came back into focus for me and made me realize that this debate over land use could have been interchanged with several other issues in that part of the country, with the same result. It also made me realize how central the theme of division is in my work.
To return to objects—you say that you’re not particularly interested in autonomous objects. So, there's this emphasis on the relational, on how the objects are being posed in an exhibition alongside one another, altogether. Then, in that sense, do they become explicitly narrative in a way, if there's this relationship between the objects and the space? Does that relationship take on a narrative dimension for you? If you look at one, and you go up to the next, is there a story between these objects? Do they unfold and onto one another?
The films relate to feature filmmaking in some way, but at the end of the day I don't believe that they fully operate that way. I don't really intend them to; for me, they really operate within a system, and the system includes objects, and these relationships between objects that we're talking about. It's not like the script of the film becomes a text that creates the dynamic between it and the object; it isn't that one-to-one. The relationships in that narrative are carried into space and activated in installation. In my mind, it's a process of distillation. It keeps reducing from the narrative starting point. And so, I guess the answer is yes, that there are these narrative relationships between the objects for me, but they're not, as explicit as the film, which, is still not that narratively explicit compared to commercial film or something.
I guess there's not really a specific word for the kind of relationships between these two things—film and objects. The relationship interests me as well because there is this sculptural quality to crafting a scene and, there's like all this stuff that gets loaded up into it—technically speaking set dressing, costumes, and props. But I think in certain kinds of films these take on a more intense, excess charge.
I'm curious about your relationship to ideas around abjection and the body. It seems that there is plenty to talk about there, in terms of abjection in an aesthetic sense—and it’s been discussed in the past; for instance in October’s “Politics of the Signifier II” (1994) roundtable on abjection and Kristeva, L’informe, and Bataille. But I’m also curious about the sacred and the profane, which also figure into those theories. In your more recent work especially, myth and religion seem to be very foregrounded.
What's coming to mind is the way that in Santeria an object has more potential, the more loaded it is. For example, Ogun, the Yoruban God of war, who's represented by iron—to call Ogun forward usually an implement made of iron is used. The more loaded the piece of iron, the more potential it has for the priest as a transformative object. So, for example, if he used a gun that had murdered somebody, that object has more potential positive transformative power than a dog leash does, for example. I think that relates in some way to what you're asking. I'm attracted to objects and figures that have that kind of level of problematic, because I believe that they can help transform things that I'm trying to make.
I think it happens a lot with the casting people in the projects. If there's a kind of masculine energy that is needed to create a balance that doesn't have to do with masculinity, the more masculine that character is, the more useful he is to me. This is probably getting a little bit away from your question, but I think at the end of the day, it's about transformation. Abjection is often in service of that also.
It sounds like there’s this excess energy; these elements of objects and materials that aren't recuperable or observable, an element beyond its sensible “qualities.” With the masculinity thing, it’s not about a person signifying or affecting “man” or “masculine,” it’s about an excessive presence. A frame that doesn’t give itself up to semiotics.
It goes back to materials and intuition. Part of the process of making might be trying to divine the impact of different materials. Do you feel like, in the cinematic space, you’re working very intuitively in that respect as well? Like, “Oh, I didn't know. I was looking to cast someone who brings this to it, but now I know.” Or is it like, “Oh, I've written this this way. I know I'm looking for this kind of guy who does this kind of thing for the project and I can envision it clearly”?
I think there's a little bit of both. I think that the story and the cast of characters continues to change, through the production.
There's certainly a kind of a core narrative and a core cast that is in place from the beginning and from the first draft of the script. But it does continue to grow. Part of that is intuitive. I think it's about understanding that there's a need for a balance. I suppose I feel that way about violence, and the use of some of the more extreme imagery using the body. I think those scenes often come, later in the development of the piece, and sometimes even quite spontaneously. I think it's a similar kind of an intuitive move toward creating space for something else, by disrupting the flow or the balance within the scene.
We talked about body horror, but I think that the work that I've been making more recently has moved a little bit away from that, but there continues to be an interest in creating these valves that connect to the inside or to an interiority. As a way of maintaining the possibility for the narrative that's taking place to be interior one. It isn't about an exterior set of ideas or problems.
To linger on body horror briefly—there is the whole Kristeva, feminism, abjection and body horror line of aesthetic thinking. Aesthetically manifest as goopy, yucky, objects that confuse inside and outside. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the way that Kristeva’s iteration of abjection sutures the concept to an inherently feminine position, when these qualities can be tied to a much more expansive and perhaps ungendered set of questions. Over the course of all these years, you’ve been thinking about that, linking it also to like athleticism as a specifically like masculinized iteration of that manipulation of the body, that inside-outside relation. I think that what you said about interiority is interesting too because there's also this general cultural conversation the different ways in which artists are called upon to either comment on the external world or also are expected to be very, naval gazing at other times. There is his back and forth between the two. I think focusing on the tunnel between the inside of the outside is the thing that is most interesting to explore currently.
I want to go back to this idea of “restraint” in your work—obviously primarily explored through the Drawing Restraint series, but also sort of countered in the more decadent and maximal film work you’ve done. Could you talk a bit about your initial interest in restraint and how it has evolved or shifted over the years?
It first came out of my experience in athletics. When I started making art, I put my body into my work right off the bat. I had spent my life up to that point using my body as a tool as an athlete, and that was what I knew best. My interest in body performance from the ’60s and ’70s and experimenting with my own body in the studio felt quite natural as a starting point. Restraint is understood as the agent of development in sports, maybe less so in the studio, but they felt related to me. As an athlete you become good at managing different types of resistance, physical and psychological, too. The early Drawing Restraints were more directly to do with the discipline of resistance training. Drawing Restraint 7 was a turning point for me, where the restraint was told through a mythological narrative with a more psychological implication, rather than through a purely physical action. It was liberating. The Cremaster Cycle was made just after that, and that was my first foray into feature filmmaking. The scale and complexity of filmmaking broadened my interest in resistance, but the Drawing Restraints have remained distinct from the films. Redoubt started out as a Drawing Restraint proposal. I had initially wanted to stage a piece of choreography in the foreground of an actual wolf hunt and make drawings of the scenes as they unfolded. I started working with a hunting outfitter to figure out a way to achieve this, and soon ran into the limitations and difficulty of tracking a wolf in the wild. The scale of the scenario I had designed would make it impossible to track and call wolves into the background of the scene. I decided to enlist a pack of wolves raised in captivity to stage the scenes, and the hunting scenes would be done with taxidermy and special effects. At that moment it stopped being a Drawing Restraint.
Looking outward, what do "restraint" and "excess" mean for art production and culture at large? It seems like at different times it's been considered imperative for artists to operate with "restraint," aesthetically, politically, personally, but at other times "excess" is in fashion. Do you have thoughts on the flow of culture in the art world and beyond when it comes to these modes? Have these expectations impacted your work and desires as an artist?
When I’m at my healthiest I believe the work can take any form, particularly in terms of narrative, if at the end of the day a sculpture can come out of it. I can get behind the term maximal, and I’m definitely interested in creating large scale narrative systems, but ultimately, I identify my process as reductive. The scale and complexity of the narrative, however baroque it becomes, is at the service of distilling sculpture.
What are you working on right now? How are some of these things manifesting now? Do you feel like you have a very different relationship to any of these things in this moment and has it totally led to different kinds of work or anything like that?
I'm definitely still inside the Redoubt world. I'm working on a couple of projects in the coming years that relate to it, but I'm also finding myself starting to think outside of it. This is all typical for me. The way that I move on from a project is about abstracting aspects of it, and exploring the cutting room floor in a way, exploring some of the things that went into the initial writing of the piece that didn't get expressed.
So it's kind of refractory.
Yeah. I'm working on a live performance that I'll be doing in the fall. It includes some of the characters from Redoubt but doesn't relate to that narrative. I tend to do that through drawing. I would say that I tend to make a set of drawings towards the end of a project. In these I try on a kind of different set of relationships between the characters and express things that didn't happen. I think in this case that live performance can do that, which is interesting. I haven't done that before.
Do you do a lot of intensive, storyboarding in the early stages of a project? Does storyboarding figure prominently as a practical dimension of your practice?
It does, but it's not like traditional storyboarding though. It does include drawing, but it isn't about really drawing what the camera sees. I think it's probably more like mapping the different elements of the narrative or the different elements of the project. And I didn't try and sort of fulfill that collage to, you know, finding found images and drawings, and then eventually some actual writing, like the script.
Do you generally write in a traditional screenplay format?
It kind of depends. River of Fundament had a pretty traditional script format. There were just so many people involved in it, and many of those people were coming from a conventional filmmaking background. But Redoubt, for example, was sort of like a synopsis of the script, I would say. I think because I could get away with it; there were fewer people involved. It was a smaller cast, and none of them were actors. There wasn’t that kind of expectation.
My final question for you: What has been exciting to you lately? What do you think about the cultural landscape now? Are things feeling cool?
To speak to the first part of it, I think the performance we’re doing live is taking me out of my comfort zone. In that way, it's probably the most exciting part. Something that must happen once, it must function in the moment; I find it very challenging and a little bit against my nature. I think it scares me and excites me.
I guess it's also an interesting time to try to work live. It's newly enticing since there's a level of like forbiddeness or illegality.
Exactly. I'm really interested to see what happens this fall with this piece. Regarding the last part of your question, I think there’s this sort of reduced version of things like exhibition-making and the distribution of things that we make because of everything that we've been living through in recent years. I quite like this more reduced version of it. I like going into a space without people and having a one-to-one relationship with the thing I'm looking at. I think that the way that things have become sort of supersized is usually not good for the work. I feel a little bit complicit in that, to be honest with you. I feel like I have been part of the problem. So, I liked that there's a kind of change that's been imposed.
That must be a weird feeling to contribute to a paradigm, or the cementation of a status quo, however accidentally. I feel that way sometimes about certain things about political conversations in the art world. When I was 23 or so, I wrote things that very vehemently argued for certain positions. And looking back I can’t help but think I contributed to an untenable way of doing things. Then it's kind of like, what do you do? You can't really correct that.
Yeah. Right. I think in my case, it had to do with a mediated experience and some of the things that we've been talking about in terms of adjacency and distance and all of that. I really went for it in terms of that kind of mediation in some of my projects. At the end of the day, though, really all I'm interested in is creating presence—and doing that in this sculptural language. No matter how exploded the concept of sculpture becomes, it's still sculpture. So, it might seem like a fine line, but I am opposed to certain ways in which the experience of art has become so mediated.
“It’s easy to recognize specters of Bataille’s thought today, for better and for worse.”
“L’informe comes out of WWII, the atomic bomb, and the Holocaust.”