“But Can a Spirit Burn?”: Alternatives for Art Under Capital

A burning cape at Paf, in St. Erme, part of a performance later named "A Ritual to Reverse the Spell of the Illusion of Power as Control" (2017). Photo by Catherine G. Wagley.

We were reprimanded before the meeting even began. The guard, a tough looking woman employed at the Lisbon Tropical Botanical Garden, told us that if she caught us in the tree again, we’d all be kicked out. So Siegmar, who looked so comfortable on that old, kind limb, climbed down and the ten of us nestled in among the roots of the big banyan. It was June 2018, and we had come from all over – Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Sao Paulo, Detroit, Los Angeles – because a friend had temporary access to three apartments in Lisbon. We meant to continue conversations begun three years earlier that had now spanned conference rooms and living rooms. More accurately, perhaps, we hoped to figure out which conversations we’d been having and how exactly to continue them. What we wanted had something to do with frustration with the current institutional models – museums, galleries, universities, art magazines – that barely paid our bills while hindering the experiments we believed in. It also had something to do with how our own education, fear, and self-censorship tamped our risk-taking. We wanted alternative support systems. Now, under the tree, it was a kind of magic: Stav said she saw her body as her main tool, and this group as a kind of body; Milena said the last space of colonization was the unconscious and that she thought collective dreaming could be a mode of resistance. But it also wasn’t magic. It had taken us two days and one long morning to even get here and start this exchange. There had been logistics to deal with: who sleeps where, who keeps the keys to which apartment. And almost as soon as our discussion began, it devolved. An earlier argument renewed itself – seven people shared two bedrooms, resulting in complex tensions displaced onto a missing key – and the problem of getting along delayed the question of how to imagine and shape an alternative world.

We were by no means the first group to try to talk our way out of a failing system. Critic and curator Lucy Lippard structured her 1972 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object around conversation, stringing together pages of interviews and long quotes. Reading through it now, encountering Joseph Kosuth, Douglas Huebler, and Lawrence Weiner debating whether an artist can exist only conceptually, or whether space is just a kind of energy, it’s easy to see how their talking never quite led them into another, alternative economy. They got so caught up in the granular details of their own projects. “Communication between people was subordinate to communication about communication,” wrote Lucy Lippard in “Escape Attempts,” her forward to the 25th anniversary edition of Six Years. The promises of Conceptualism had let her down, as the art market absorbed the works’ utopian idealism. Looking back, she saw how the project had always been a bit stuck, caught up in itself. She writes “[a]rt was recaptured and sent back to its white cell.” But she also doesn’t seem convinced that it ever truly broke free.

In 1994, Andrea Fraser and Helmut Draxler initiated Services, an exhibition that grew, intentionally, out of recorded discussions. Nineteen artists convened at the University of Lunenberg Kunstraum in Germany to talk about laboring for institutions; each brought documentation or parts of projects to contribute to the exhibition. They recounted stories of curators sabotaging their plans, museum administrators finding their installations uncomfortable, and artist fees going unpaid. They also tried, haltingly, to imagine solutions to the problems they encountered. “If you make it clear what you want to do, it’s possible to build a consensus,” said Susan Cahan. “So far we have only talked about the conflicts that can arise, can we talk about anything else?” asked Beatrice von Bismarck. Fraser said she wanted a “coherent policy” to protect artists and curators.

Twenty-three years later, LAX Art, a nonprofit in Hollywood, restaged Services with new, younger artists reading what had been said decades ago. The question of how to work within this system of institutions and commissions, still unanswered, now seems particularly old and intractable, based upon the unchanging assumption that institutional models are a given. What would a new escape attempt look like?

Corazon del Sol and Valentina Desideri gather water to cook the world. Photo by Catherine G. Wagley.

Artist Mai-Thu Perret bases her whole practice on a fictional flight from convention. The Crystal Frontier, the narrative Perret created to explain her craft-informed artworks, follows a feminist commune called New Ponderosa. In her book The Land of Crystals, Perret compiled letters and diary entries telling the story of the commune, which lives off the land (bought by one members’ trust fund, a crucial detail) and aims to self-sustain by selling artworks and crafts at local markets. “It might serve as a model for other dissatisfied people like ourselves,” writes Perret. But this group also spends most of its time figuring out what it is, as members join and then leave. “Amazing discussion with the others last night,” reads one diary entry. “Trying to solve some of the building questions, and to plan ahead for the extension of the community. Debating how to share the work and how to respect each other’s personal space…” Sometimes their arguments become more abstract and symbolic: “We fight among ourselves about this idea of geometry (the geometric versus the organic).” Funnily, all the work Perret herself produces, informed by this fantasy alternative life, hovers so delicately between functional object and art object as to not upset the status quo. Her Rorschach-like shag rug paintings and wall-hanging ceramics are minimal and tasteful. She knows this. Her art is less about depicting alternatives than how hard it is to imagine a way out of familiar support systems. True alternatives could so easily appear tacky and reckless, because they spurn the educated, strategic look of so much high art (so often work that is emotionally raw, unpretentious, and intentionally unschooled is termed “naïve,” or “hippie art”).

The first time I traveled overseas to seek new models of community was in December 2015. Instead of flying home for Christmas, I had saved for a flight to Paris, where I would meet my friend Corazon del Sol, who wanted to introduce me to new friends of hers. I have written about Corazon before, and will again, because she – like a handful of other friends – went from being an artist whose work interested me to an intimate who helps re-shape my life and work. It took me years to see this blurring of professional and personal boundaries not as sloppy, but as necessary if I wanted my work to support different possibilities for living. (Sara Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life, “I have to make a case: that living a feminist life is working; that this life is working,” – a reminder that the space between being and thinking should collapse). Corazon wanted to spend New Year’s at a former convent called Paf. On New Years’ Eve, there was a banquet in the convent basement, to celebrate the fact that 50 artists, writers, and scholars had just collectively purchased the space. The new owners, already paying toward the purchase, could stay for free (others paid 18 Euros a night for one of the many first-come, first-served rooms). But, crucially, the owners would have no other special privileges. When someone raised a toast to this new reality, the applause lasted so long I had time to go to the bathroom and return before it stopped. It seemed that an affordable space for figuring things out, unaffiliated with any institution and now mostly owned and run by people uncomfortable with institutional affiliation, would now exist long term.

The following summer I returned to the convent for a meeting called Elsewhere & Otherwise. Valentina Desideri and Daniela Bershan, both of whom I’d met briefly at New Years, organized these gatherings. Seven days long, the meeting had no moderator or set schedule: the whole group discussed the schedule together, and people volunteered to run morning sessions. The afternoons were filled with wide-ranging debrief sessions. Over the week, the group shrank to a core collection of people who wanted to grapple in this way. The Brexit vote happened the day before we convened, and the alt-right was gaining power across Europe and the US. This crumbling of establishments lent an urgency to the proceedings, but sometimes they were still boring, occasionally overtaken by longwinded individuals who mostly wanted to talk about themselves. Sometimes we were so academic we began to sound like we belonged in the ivory towers we ostensibly sought to escape. It was exhausting, coming together for hours to figure out how to talk about these things. When I returned to Los Angeles, a colleague asked, “So is there any outcome, any goal, or is the talking the whole project?” I knew that talking was part of shifting priorities toward the kind of environment I wanted; I just wasn’t exactly sure what that environment looked like.

Beginning in 1969, artist Lee Lozano used her conversations to begin a shift that eventually took her out of the artworld. Her Dialogue Piece began with a notebook entry – such entries are the only record of the project – that explained: “The purpose of this piece is to have dialogues, not to make a piece. No recording or notes are made during dialogues, which exist solely for their own sake, as joyous social occasions.”  She was promiscuous with her invitations (she invited a cat, baby, her ailing mother, and 13 women she saw at a Paula Cooper opening reception) and incisive with her judgments. Ian Wilson puts “ideas into art mag jargon” while Larry Stafford talks “much abt gallery and dealer pitfalls.” She dialogues with Dan Graham and “definite changes were immediately effected because of it.” Her work continued in this vein for two more years, her ephemeral projects interrogating her relationship to the New York artworld, until she stopped exhibiting or attending openings. Her lack of formal participation led insiders to assume that she had left the city, maybe moved back to her home state of Texas. In fact, she had moved a few blocks away. “She did not disappear,” said artist Gerry Morehead, her roommate for a time. She had, however, dialogued the established artworld to death for herself.

In 1975, A few years after Lozano left the formal artworld, feminist artists in the U.K. began the Postal Art Event, an amorphous coming-together through postcards. It started with two women, Sally Gollop and Kate Walker, and eventually grew to include as many as 30 at its peak. Participant Monica Ross wrote about it in an essay for the journal Heresies: “The posting of one piece of work from one woman to another makes ownership ambiguous.” The project culminated with a 1977 installation at the London ICA, which raised the ire of certain spectators uncomfortable with the works’ open frustration and uncertainty (the artists were called “miserable bitches,” or “bitter and twisted”). What felt open-ended, alive, and full of promise as an informal exchange, read as something of an affront in an institution.

Before I returned for a second summer at Elsewhere & Otherwise, I stopped in Lisbon first. Corazon and Valentina were already there. We slept in a small apartment without internet, because the home we’d planned to stay in was under construction. We went to a Wi-Fi cafe in a park almost daily. One day, after I’d worked for a few hours on an essay about a woman who sued leaders of the religious right, I found my friends in a gazebo, sewing together a burlap cape. A day later, we stopped at a Staples and printed out a stack of photos of Earth taken from space. Then at sunset, we drove to the beach, with a big brass alambique – Corazon and Valentina found it at a flea market. This was less romantic than it sounds; Corazon had been sick, all of us were tired, and errands and work made our social time precious and a little strained. But on the beach, I filmed as they filled the bottom half of the alambique with sea water and lit a fire beneath it. They took turns putting on the cape, closing their eyes, spinning each other around, and then stirring all the pictures of the world into the simmering water. “Cooking the World” they called it, a way to turn to pulp a representation of years of oppression so effective and layered that we had internalized it. I did not stir the world this time, though I was taken by the beauty of it all, the epic ocean, and the almost literal, yet still poetic, gesture. Afterward, over dinner above the beach, we talked about domination and freedom, how to go about freeing ourselves from the desire for a hierarchical, exclusive kind of power, the conversation blurring away from this big question toward personal anxieties and preoccupations.

Corazon del Sol and Valentina Desideri cooking the world on a beach outside of Lisbon, 2017 (when they re-performed this at Tabakalera in San Sebastian, Spain in January 2018, they called the work “A Ritual to Reverse the Spell of the Illusion of Power as Control”).

A week later at the monastery, the number of Elsewhere & Otherwise attendees had nearly doubled from the year before. The group dynamic became even more of a focus than it was the previous year. How do 100 people communicate together? How does a group this big ensure that certain personalities do not dominate? Corazon and Valentina cooked the world again, this time inviting anyone to take a turn wearing the cape: spinning and stirring. At the beach, the ritual had been more of a quiet exorcism. Here it felt more like an elective initiation – by putting on the cape, you were, at least for a moment, accepting the proposition that Corazon and Valentina had set forth: that we were all dominated by something, and that participating in a ceremony like this could help us begin to understand it. The images of the world turned to pulp, and after it was done, we burned the cape in a fire.

In 1993, Corazon’s mother, the late artist Eugenia P. Butler, created a project called The Kitchen Table. She had learned of a secret room at the LA Art Fair, nestled between booths. In this space, she proposed to hold intimate talks and livestream them on a screen in the convention center lobby. She hosted eight conversations over meals and wine. Certain invitees she already knew (George Herms, Sheila Pinkel); others she knew by reputation (Marina Abramovic, Carolee Schneemann). Footage of the project is shaky, and the sound quality fluctuates. They spend a great deal of time trying to get on the same page. But then compelling moments pop up amidst self-involved monologues. In Talk Four, subtitled “Art and the Power to Change Community,” Berlin-based artist Julia Lohmann candidly admits to hating the event’s title. To Butler’s reply (“Good let’s talk about!”) Lohmann responded, “There is nothing connected to power in art. The intersection of power and art is something that doesn’t function for me.” Butler said, “I think that we have the power as human beings to affect, to love, to do more in the short span of time that we’re alive.”

Corazon del Sol and Eugenia P. Butler, “The Kitchen Table,” (1993/2019). Video by Ignacio Genzen and Margarethe Drexel, edited by Jason Underhill.

For the inaugural Frieze Los Angeles in 2019, Projects Curator Ali Subotnick asked Corazon to recreate her mother’s work. Corazon tried to do it differently, building a strange, informal set in the upstairs offices of a gallery. Guests, most of them friends like Valentina, put their hands and heads through holes cut into green velvet strung from the ceiling and draped over the table. It looked as if they were wearing the tablecloth while eating off of it. Unlike her mother, Corazon tightly edited the footage to make legible the possibilities she believes such conversations can offer. “Collectively we have this incredible power and magic in the best sense,” she says at one point, while eating. Artist Kandis Williams responds, “I feel like the magic I’ve experienced has been this overwhelming curse, and it’s really hard to talk through it.” This prompts Simone Forti, the oldest artist in attendance: “I remember seeing film images in Nazi Germany with everybody with their arm up, a huge sea of arms up like this.” Valentina tries to parse the difference between that kind of collective gesture and the kind she wants: “For me the criticality is suspended [in situations like that], because you’re not asked and there is no conversation about it. Like, we’re screaming ‘burn, burn’ to a spirit, but not even [asking] the question, ‘but can a spirit burn?’” She goes on to argue that you can use any tool, any ritual, to understand your existence, but you need to discuss and criticize it.

We planned the Lisbon meeting in summer 2018 because we thought that perhaps with a smaller group, we could get further then we had before. We probably did, but the group conversations still mostly revolved around figuring out the form of our togetherness and how our sensibilities connected. For some, this might have been enough. I still hold that figuring out how to be together is the first step to something else, an alternative infrastructure – either physical or emotional – that allows us to live differently. Recently, on a hike, I told Corazon I was trying to write about the conversations we’d had, and how hard it is to do so given the lack of tangible effects. “But there are effects,” she said. “All of our work is changing.”


“But Can a Spirit Burn?”: Alternatives for Art Under Capital by Catherine G. Wagley was commissioned by Momus as part of Field Perspectives 2019, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field. Field Perspectives 2019 invites thinking that reflects on the future of the artist organizing field. The program, a collaboration between Common Field and nine arts publications, is published in two parts. Part 2 includes texts by The Artblog,  BmoreArt, Momus, Terremoto, The Third Rail and Title Magazine. Part 1 included texts by Chicago Artist Writers, The Rib and Sixty Inches from Center. Generous support for Field Perspectives is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

1 Comment

  • Union Alarm says:

    So, over my career in this field, I have come across a really powerful piece, and this one is at the top of my list. I can only imagine where these people will head to with this level of creativity.

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