This is a preview of a two part interview with Santiago Vernetti and Courtney Malick in FOUNDATIONS Issue 4, to see part two, you can order a copy here!
“In the Flesh” is a two-part exhibition project with an accompanying publication. The first half took place at Martos Gallery in Los Angeles in the fall of 2015, exploring four artists—Ivana Basic (New York), Encyclopedia Inc. (Los Angeles), Nicolas Lobo (Miami), and Sean Raspet (Los Angeles)— whose work references inorganic, synthetic, or chemical substances found in various ingestible products and technological devices. The second half took place at Gallery Diet in Miami in the spring of 2016, presenting five artists— Ivana Basic (New York), Hannah Black (Berlin), Megan Daalder (Los Angeles), Cecile B. Evans (Berlin), and Martha Friedman (New York)—whose works reimagine and foreshadow possible future adaptations of the human body as its gene expression gradually shifts, through the ingestion of and exposure to the kinds of inorganic substances ad- dressed in the first exhibition.
I sat down with Courtney Malick, the curator, to find out a bit more about how Part I and Part II came together and to delve into some of the ideas, artworks, and artists that helped shape the show.
Courtney Malick: I came out here in 2010 in between my first and second year of grad school at Bard to do an internship at LACE when they were working on their contribution for Pacific Standard Time. My friend Larry from New York said, “You should really get in touch with my friend Tom Leeser (1), he’s a professor at CalArts and a curator too.” So we met, and after I graduated we reconnected. He was organizing an online project called viralnet.net and was commissioning writers and asked me to write an essay. Right around that time, Palais de Tokyo had a young curators open call for sub- missions.I had submitted a proposal for a show that pinpointed different artists and specific works of theirs along this arc that I was tracing that involved the really slow, gradual breakdown of all forms of human behavior, convention, and rhetoric— particularly with regards to religion— until it came to a point where you had artists working in very a microcosmic test site context. I was looking at people like Brody Condon, or artists whose works were about breaking or rupture points. Then I went to the 319 Scholes website (http://319scholes.org/), the space based in Brooklyn, and I saw this show that Ivana Basic curated in which she included a piece of hers in called “Automata” (2). I didn’t know much else about her work, so I contacted her to see if she would mind if I wrote about it while I was living in Los Angeles in about 2012. The essay came out in summer 2013 and then I returned to New York and finally got to visit her studio. When I was there I saw these crazy sculptures and said, “What are these disgusting, creepy, fleshy, things?“ I thought about them all the time, especially when I was at the market. I started having these thoughts of how they were affecting me, constantly thinking “what is happening to me” and that’s where it all started.
Santiago Vernetti: So all of this started with the Ivana Basic works that are in the show. Where did you go from there?
CM: Next was Sean Raspet. I actually knew Sean before the show. In 2007 I had worked at Daniel Reich Gallery. He was represented there and I think he lived in New York at the time, although I had never seen him do a show. I remember he would come in and I would see his work, but never paid much attention. I was 23 years old, so maybe I didn’t have the best sensibility. I went to Basel last year and was walking past this booth and they had created a wall of these huge tanks with this unsettling blue liquid inside them (3). I thought to myself, “What is this? This is so cool and interesting.” I already had these ideas about food in my mind from Ivana, and at NADA I had been seeing all of this work about food everywhere I went. Then I saw Sean and he said hi and mentioned this was what he had been working on the last time we had a studio visit. I asked him if he could describe to me what that flavor was inside the tanks, and what chemicals he made it with, and immediately thought, oh this is a good direction.
SV: It’s great when artists fall off your radar for years, which is inevitable considering how many artists we come into contact with. Then, it’s only in a moment when you are not thinking about them, and not actively trying to understand their work in the context of others, that you stumble around a corner and all the chips fall into place. It’s like, “oh yeah you’re that complicated missing piece to this weird ass puzzle I’ve been trying to put together.”
1. Tom Leeser is a digital media artist, educator, curator, and writer. He is the Program Director of the Art and Technology Program in the School of Art and the Director of the Center for Integrated Media at the California Institute of the Arts.
2. Exhibition titled Not Spring, Not Winter: March 3rd 2012 to March 4th 2012
3. Part of SOCIÉTÉ’s 2014 group exhibition at Miami Basel. http://www.societeberlin.com/Exhibitions-Past/Group-show-Art-Basel-MiamiBeach-176.html
CM: And he’d been doing stuff like that for a few years, but I think really just last year have people started to notice. He had a big presence in that booth, but a lot of people are still very confused by what he’s doing. They’re like “What is this weird science guy doing here?”
SV: A lot of conceptual practices like Raspet’s take a great deal of time to be recognized as art. Especially his because, for me, he’s playing a lot with the aesthetics of the chemical industry, or rather works inside that world for so long that he has just inevitably borrowed from, or uses, their aesthetic makeup in his practice. Even down to the website and company he founded to help artists source molecules and chemicals as art materials for their practices. But he’s so adamant about how the chemistry is the art, and the containers and devices that hold and dispense the chemicals are very much not part of the art work. So even taking that stance sets up major resistance in people’s minds to consider the work as art because they’re not allowed to think of the containers as sculptural components of the work. I want to take him at his word and so I have to try to accept his practice the way he defines it, but I still think there’s a lot of aesthetic decision making around those vessels that counts... that’s an argument for another time though.
CM: Yeah, what was challenging for me, even with Martos Gallery, is that he really only cares about the molecules and liquid itself and the flavors of what he is making. In The Flesh Part I: Subliminal Substances is the first time he is allowing people to taste the product. Originally it was going to be these sealed containers, but a lot of the lure for people that don’t know what he is doing is these containers and canisters that he was putting the work in. If you buy the work you don’t necessarily get it in the containers that he displays them in at the exhibitions. The containers are more like display frames or monitors for him. He sells everything by the liter. That was difficult for me because, at first, the things he wanted to put in the space were really ugly, like slushy machine at the movies, and I can definitely get down with that in certain situations, but it seemed so secondary to the work. I’m not going to tell him what to do with his work, but you still have to think about presentation in the context of a group show. He had a questionnaire in the show for participants who tasted the different abstract flavors, and in the end I think he was happy with the feedback.
SV: Well, if they are merely like frames or pedestals for him, he is essentially asking the subsequent stewards of the work to be very involved in decisions about how the work is displayed or even used. That has a lot of implications for a curator. How did Lucy get involved?
CM: I was trying to find someone else based in LA and Lucy Chinen was recommended as a local artist who was working on this interesting food project where she was going to have these different, real foods that were new products that people can taste and try. I had never met her, but she and I both wrote something for David Gryn’s “Daata Editions,” so I knew of her from that and found a way to incorporate her into the project with the panel discussion and tasting.
Up until that point, I didn’t know about Sean [Raspet]’s involvement with Soylent, and I decided it would be interesting to showcase his Soylent flavors too, because it’s strange; it’s a real commodity and it’s an actual thing that people are maybe going to eat. But those were just prototypes, not necessarily art works.
SV: How about the collective Encyclopedia Inc.—how many artists are in the collective?
CM: Three. They all maintain their own individual practices. They were doing all this research on Uranium and I thought oh, this is perfect. This is the first piece of work they had ever exhibited as a collective. They do a lot of dossiers and a lot of their work is actually text-based. Encyclopedia Inc. highlighted the overlaps between Monsanto, the Manhattan project, yellow cake uranium, and other issues that are brought up in the dossier included in the PDF catalog (4). This chart, and the whole project, is supposed to impart this feeling of fear and paranoia. Their whole practice as a collective is kind of about trying to make people understand the severity of not only the radioactivity levels in our daily lives but of other concerns as well.
4. If you haven’t already open this catalog up and read it with this interview. http://www.martosgallery.com/s/Inthe FleshFINALREVISED.pdf
SV: But as much as these pieces are about consequence, they look like natural history museum infographics. In that way they are very approachable. The whole show feels very friendly, safe, warm even. As alienating, strange, and at times clinically bizarre as they all are, together they feel right at home, as if you created a safe party for them. You walk in and are like, “oh this is cool, we’re all cool here, when in Rome!” But it is very weird party. At the opening you had shots of a soy sauce analogue made from human hair with a Material Vodka chaser.
CM: There were people at the opening that were like, “oh this soy sauce is made from human hair that’s so gross.” And I had to tell them, well actually, the same chemical that is derived from the human hair—by breaking it down into these amino acids, which is what Nick did— is in all mass-produced bread products, tortillas and probably pastas. So, if you ever bought a not-so-great bag of bread, you’ve definitely ingested it, along with a million other things you probably don’t know about.
SV: I’m sure there’s human hair in all mass-produced products anyway. Humans and factories are far from infallible. So how did Nicolas Lobo get looped into the project?
CM: When I got back from Miami in 2014, my SFAQ editor said “hey do you want to interview this artist Nicolas Lobo who is based in Miami for the next print issue?” I started looking more at what he was doing and I started thinking, hey this is a weird and cool guy. After the interview, and partially because of it, I started working at this gallery in San Francisco that had just started representing him. So I started working there and became more interested in Nick’s work after looking through his press clippings. I didn’t know about the soy sauce thing and when I was going through his old press I read about it and realized he had never done anything with it. That’s how I also got in touch with the gallery in Miami: Gallery Diet. The sculpture that he made, in order to pour the soy sauce over it, is made out of these bio-foam blocks based on Corbusier's modular man. It feeds into this other work at his solo show in Miami.
For me, placing these artworks together helps to generate new ways of thinking about mass food production and consumption, and what that is doing to culture. When people are buying their food anywhere there’s no organization that forces a food purveyor to disclose whether or not their foods contain GMOs. And it’s not just about GMOs, “organic” is a really loose term—there are a million other pathogens and weird preservatives and chemicals, and I don’t know what they all are, but in order for you to say you are producing an organic product, you only have say to your product does not contain maybe one hundred of about a thousand different things. And sure, Encyclopedia Inc. is saying “be scared” with their work, but of course we don’t want to live in too much fear.
SV: More than “be scared” it sounds like they’re saying “be more aware.”
CM: But if you were more aware you would probably be scared.
I find it interesting, how Ivana’s work may be the most digestible in the show... no pun intended, or at least very understandable as art. Still it’s very strangely constructed, very bodily and organic, and the materiality is super confusing. How it’s made, and what it is made of, is fascinating. As conceptual and complex as the other projects are, my friend and I left the opening thinking about how confusing the surfaces of those sculptures are.
CM: It’s a very long process that she goes through to make those.
SV: So what’s this next show? In the Flesh, Part II: Potential Adaptations?
CM: It’s going to be futuristic. It’s supposed to be like a thousand years in the future, and how the body will adapt genetically over various generations. We’re not going to say that’s what the show is about exactly but it’s fun to speculate. Like, what would happen if we all started eating Soylent instead of milk? Three thousand years from now we might have very different organs. Maybe in a thousand years, your thumb will come straight out of your wrist thanks to texting so much. I don’t know. But it’s also about a lot of subcultures that are interested in pushing that merge between technology and the human body forward. So there is going to be a section of a document that’s about bio-hackers and cyborgs.
CM: Yeah. But you know, there’s a lot of really bad art about those ideas, and I don’t want to include something just because it pertains to them. I wanted to get Stelarc but I don’t know where he is; haha, the artist that grew an ear out of his arm. People are like, “ew, that’s gross,” but I think that was a great art piece.
I also really wanted a food writer to come and review the first show. We invited a bunch to the opening. Maybe they did come, got confused, and were like, “I’m out.”
SV: It’s not too late. There’s always part II.