INTERVIEW: SILVIA KOLBOWSKI
The pioneering artist discusses the trajectory of her critical practice, misconceptions of art's social value and how to perform against far-right aesthetics.
Throughout her decades-long practice, Silvia Kolbowski has continuously questioned the politics of spectatorship. Her work demonstrates a relentless quest for the meeting point of criticality and aesthetic form, developing a broad practice that ranges from site-specific interventions to appropriating different media as well as editing, writing, and teaching. Looking at how her works have changed form over the years enables the experience of an artist’s steady confrontation with psychological and political powers, all the while discussing art’s position as a tool of critique and its direct complicity.
Dennis Brzek: I encountered your work for the very first time by stumbling upon a text on your piece „an example of recent work...“, which you did in 1990, and then delved further into the other works of that decade, many of which took place in storefronts or commercial spaces. I was fascinated to see how you changed your vocabulary from appropriating imagery to embedding yourself into the circulatory motion of commodities, creating something like a non-form. Can you tell me more about the context of your practice back then and what influences affected your thinking?
Silvia Kolbowski: At the end of the 1980s, I found myself splitting away from a group of artists with whom I had been loosely associated through a series of exhibitions and reviews. Although much of that work (identified as “appropriationist”) fit easily into the art market realm, I found that because I had moved in the direction of site-specific - or what I called site-transferrable work - it was not an easy fit for the group exhibition genre that was popular then in commercial galleries in the East Village and later SoHo in New York.
As the requests to participate in group exhibitions diminished due to the nature of my work, I decided to work more independently and came up with an idea for a work in an urban setting that was not dependent on public art funding, which in the U.S. is politically conservative. That project was "an example of recent work may be seen in the windows of Harry Winston, Inc. from approximately 5:17 to 5:34 pm", in which I selected an urban site, sent out an invitation to the site through my gallery’s mailing list, and placed an ad in Artforum. You could say that it was the framing of a site through language and invitation. I chose the site for several reasons - the value of expensive, custom jewels seemed to parallel the arbitrary value of exclusive market art, contemporaneous market art of that period was highly crafted, and Harry Winston, Inc. was open by appointment only, publicly removing their jewels from street display at the end of each day, during the time frame indicated. Also, Harry Winston was situated diagonally across from the Trump Tower, and was the site from which tourists photographed it. To me, at the time, Trump Tower signified the public face of 1980s capitalism. Subsequently, I produced several projects related to urban sites that required little or no government approval.
If I think about the influences on my work of that period, I would have to say that the 1970s work of Michael Asher began to be of great interest to me in the mid- to late-1980s. I came late to that work, but his historical comment - “Why put something on the wall? Why put something on the floor?” - resonated deeply with me. The work of Marcel Broodthaers was also important. I transliterated those influences into my historical present. And while those artists were interested in the specific economies of aesthetic production and exhibition, I was interested in additionally drawing in other economies and discourses, including economic histories related to misogyny and racism.
The unwritten history of the group exhibition as a gallery format is something very interesting to trace. You have elsewhere described such history as heavily embedded in commercial incentives of the 1980s, with galleries wanting to offer a broad selection of works with very little commitment. At the time, commercial freelance curating also started to take on the shape that we’ve now come to know, thanks to people like Collins & Milazzo. The processes you describe seem emblematic of the further distinction between affluent and non-affluent artists, hit by the market crash of 1987 and stepping into a wobbly new decade. These economic pressures obviously influence artistic practice and I wonder how you experienced them. Works like the Harry Winston project or also „Closed Circuit“ (1997), for which you had gathered objects sold in shops in SoHo and arranged them in an installation-like shape – while galleries were moving over to Chelsea to avoid that “commercialism” – seem to carry an ambiguous and complex understanding of critical practice as they pose questions like: What are the prerequisites for a critical practice and how is it embedded in the commercial circuit? What are its financial resources, and what are the forms of safety and affluence needed to act critically? Why do these topics usually appear excluded from each other?
I lived through a few boom and bust periods in the art market until it settled into a stable money-making machine for the 1% (of collectors and of artists). I used to say that I much preferred teaching during a bust period, because art students during a boom period were ineducable, convinced that they would all be successful and rich as a matter of course. But if you had any clarity about the course of 20th and 21st century capitalism, there was no self-delusion possible.
These economic vicissitudes did not affect me as strongly because I made a living through various freelance jobs in addition to selling a few works a year – teaching, editing, and graphic design. That was incidental at first, but became purposeful. I also kept my overhead low, and devised strategies for making films with tiny budgets or, as in the works you mention, through the use of existing context. But it should also be said that I came of age before the real estate market in New York became maniacally inflated. And my husband had a tenured teaching job. You could not replicate my trajectory today, an era of insanely leveraged real estate and diminishing tenured jobs.
You’re absolutely right that this kind of thing is never discussed publicly as an aspect of an art practice, although I think it exists in the sense that artists today who don’t make a full living from their work often devise projects with digital mediums that are inexpensive. But there’s a price to be paid for this approach, and that has to do with how museums today tend to favor artists who either have a reputation established by a prestigious commercial gallery (which favors market art, and then compounds into other venues), or who fall into a category of fleeting cultural desirability. So distribution remains a gamble, even in a modest practice. And I’ve never been an artist who worked mainly for my own enjoyment of process. For me, the motivation is in the relation to the spectator, projected or actual, as in public exchanges.
"I much preferred teaching during a bust period, because art students during a boom period were ineducable, convinced that they would all be successful and rich as a matter of course. But if you had any clarity about the course of 20th and 21st century capitalism, there was no self-delusion possible."
What one could call “backdrop“ always becomes a forceful agent in your works. While this is a potential strategy to keep a low overhead, as you say, it also readjusts and fixes the positionality that you became aware of through Asher. Your practice moved from these public interventions and installation works in gallery spaces to include more film works later on, and I feel like that traditional concept of Japanese garden culture that you mention often is a way to think site-specificity for film and to connect your works of that medium to your earlier practice.
I have utilized what could be called found mise-en-scene in many projects, whether that has to do with re-cutting existing films or finding free ways of utilizing physical settings. In "After Hiroshima Mon Amour" (2008) I filmed from a sidewalk into a Manhattan restaurant through an e open window in front of which sat my two actors, and then edited-in music and ambient sounds found in the Alain Resnais film Hiroshima Mon Amour; and I shot late at night in a part of Manhattan that was empty except for the nighttime activity of the wholesale meat industry, and at a large anti-Iraq War demonstration in Washington DC. Waiters and workers and protestors going about their activities became my extras, mixed with my actors, and edited closely in post-production. In the aftermath of 9/11, NYC became cagey about the utilization of public spaces; there were more police on the streets and a heightened protection of “private” property. So I had to be creative in selecting sites and timing. In a similar way, but involving perfunctory permission, "These goods are available at…" (1995) circulated found objects from one storefront to another in London and Paris, and "Closed Circuit" (1997) compared two urban sites - of disparate art and real estate development - in NYC on the same afternoon, etc.
I have always found the Chinese and Japanese concept of “borrowed scenery” to be compelling because it conceptually melds two conditions that read as one. The design of a modest garden can visually and seamlessly incorporate grand vegetation beyond it. But your idea of backdrop also includes the framing of a political moment, a framing that incorporates the idea of spectatorship and psyche. Because while one could say that the unconscious processes that inflect spectatorship are trans-historical, they are also inflected by temporal context. In our current political moment in the U.S. and elsewhere, for example, in which demagogues exploit the precarity of masses that do not understand how corporate capitalism exploits them, I think that the particular psychical processes of identification, paranoid projection, and narcissism are culturally foregrounded. This definitely informed my decision to “borrow” and re-edit "Frankenstein’s Bride" in my last film, “That Monster,” because it is a film that already, in 1931, foregrounds those unconscious processes. I do wonder whether the date of that film, so soon after a market collapse, affected that, as it does today.
As an aesthetic concept, borrowed scenery both fleshes out the way in which a work can be read to exist in a network of contexts and engages the practice behind it in an active and participatory way that could ultimately be political. How do you think artistic tools can actually record a social dynamic and relate to its contexts in a way that does not simply reproduce but actually acts upon them?
I’ve joked that for decades I had to pretend that I believed art played a valuable critical role in society, and then when Trump got elected, I actually did start to believe it! Trump dominates a political landscape through the effects of representation and performativity, against which the law has had almost no effect. He has fulfilled the right-wing finance goals of the rich - tax cuts, deregulation, and attempts at privatization. And he has enacted a genocidal asylum curtailment. But the hallmarks of his reign are a daily use of language, images, and performativity that generate mass identification, among other things. This made me have more confidence in the potentially critical role of culture, particularly mass culture, at the level of narrative, form, and images. Trump’s Democratic opponents have been embarrassingly ineffective. In part this is because they offer so little progressive policy to the masses, even as promises, but also because they are clueless about the representational and performative dimensions of politics - dimensions that demagogues understand instinctively.
"Trump’s Democratic opponents have been embarrassingly ineffective. In part this is because they offer so little progressive policy to the masses, even as promises, but also because they are clueless about the representational and performative dimensions of politics - dimensions that demagogues understand instinctively."
I’ve always been opposed to the idea that art should be instrumentalized to perform the function of social work or stop-gap measures, stepping into the vacuums created by capitalism’s zero-sum games. In the 1990s, I was adamantly opposed to “relational aesthetics”1 and I remain so because that approach was always, at best, a minor enabler of capitalism’s cruelty. It is one thing for art to frame how capitalism creates precarity and suffering and compliance. It is another to have the hubris to think that art can alleviate even some of that. I think an analogous example today concerns the racist role that the police play in capitalist America. A crucial stance like “defunding the police” calls for redirecting existing police budgets to social workers and experts in violence de-escalation, to community youth centers, etc. But social workers and violence de-escalators and community centers will not alter the fact that capitalism has built into it the expendability of huge numbers of human beings that do not suit its labor needs at a given moment.
The difficult task for art is to not simply try to alleviate the effects of capitalism’s gruesome dislocation of relations and connections, but rather to consciously question its own implication in them.
Absolutely, but in terms of circulation and distribution, and in terms of creating audiences, I think that requires a bigger breach between market art and non-market art than the one that already exists And in aggressively neoliberal countries like the U.S., where museums are privately funded, one is up against the ideological self-censorship that goes on in museums. That’s a pattern that has to be broken through new platforms, and through individual transgressions of normative practices by curators and directors. I have worked with several, so I know that it can be done. I have long questioned the scale of the impact of “fine” art when it is critical. Maybe its greatest virtue is keeping alive a small critical community, the “minor” voices that sometimes filter out to larger audiences through an impact on mass culture.
Image: Silvia Kolbowski, An example of recent work may be found in the windows of Harry Winston Inc., from approximately 5:17 to 5:34 pm, 1990, New York. General view. Photo courtesy of the artist.
This discussion was conducted between August 10th and September 10th, 2020.