Transmissions is the outcome of Nick Mauss’s time spent as a fellow at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. The exhibition hazards refreshing intellectual promiscuity in webs of entanglement drawn out via playful archival displays and live performances. Mauss’s curatorial logic is, aptly, terpsichorean as he coaxes viewers to contemplate modern ballet and its European ancestry in relation to avant-garde visual (and decorative) art production between the 1930s and 1950s. Mauss contends that ballet is part of a larger story, subject to as much revision and cross-contamination as the plastic arts — only its genealogy is more fugitive, and more hybrid.
Scenography in Mauss’s work often manifests as interior architectures in homage to artist-aesthetes like Léon Bakst and Florine Stettheimer. Mauss designs Transmissions around a dance floor, demarcated on one side by a line of scrim panels along which official New York City Ballet photographer George Platt Lynes’s decadently homoerotic photographs of draped dancers’ bodies hang mid-air. Nearby, Dorothea Tanning’s Aux environs de Paris (Paris and Vicinity) (1962), a breathy painting of tumbling animations, rests in the proverbial wings, as footage of George Balanchine in rehearsal refracts from a monitor overlooking Mauss’s own Images in Mind (2018), a reverse glass painting on fifty-six mirrored panels. Occasionally, we hear Balanchine’s voice as he counts for his dancers — and hence, for Mauss’s too.
Each afternoon, rotating groups of four dancers emerge, stretch, and then perform choreographies that convert a Marley floor into the engine of the exhibition, against which Mauss’s notion of ballet “as a kind of body of literature” is actively tested and fulfilled. Heightened by a sense of unfolding kinetic research, the effect is akin to walking into a dance studio mid-class. On a recent evening, a male dancer commences his performance: silhouetted in an all-black unitard, he enacts a series of languid poses, some of which noticeably derive from Platt Lynes’s surrounding photographs, while other postures repurpose Vaslav Nijinsky’s faune character in glyphic profile. The first dancer is soon joined by another, and together they make use of the floor in reclining, piscine configurations, in manners characteristic of Martha Graham’s earthbound technique, Maria Hassabi’s slow, Butoh-like museum sequences, and David Hemmings’s photographic duet with Veruschka in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). Eventually, rhythms quicken and gender roles shift, as duets become trios become quartets become solos.
The performers’ stop-motion slowness leads sequences to inscribe and incise themselves as pictures in the show, making literal use of the term choreo-graphy — and their evocation of L’Après midi d’un faune is not lost as a leitmotif for the exhibition as a whole. Largely considered ballet’s pivot into modernity, Nijinsky’s choreographic debut for the Ballets Russes in 1912 was characterized by attenuated sequences of immobility, described as a “choreographic picture” in its program, and even called a “danceless” ballet by certain critics.1 Not incidentally, footage of a 1936 iteration danced by the Original Ballet Russe and shot by dancer-cinematographer Ann Barzel is on nearby display.
Prolonged viewing of Transmissions’ live performances instills a sense of ballet’s shared mother tongue, cutting across histories and dance backgrounds (varied here among performers) — its vocabulary actionable as the already-hybrid commons from which Mauss “unfreeze[s] a catalogue of movements,” such that viewers start to pierce modernist ballet’s genome. In effect, he coauthors compositional, moving friezes: formal devices for transmission that complement views held by Jean-Georges Noverre, an eighteenth-century choreographer and early dance theorist, who conceived of ballet proto-cinematically, as living pictures wherein figures would be “painted in” alongside visual imagery and music, but without words.
Transmissions might be read as a provocation to think with the articulative capacities of gesture-speech more broadly. As a medium, classical ballet is mute of voice — indeed, Plutarch called it “a conversation in dumb show,” for it “speaks” silently through gesture — yet it was not always so. While ballet was still a subcategory of opera, early presentations included spoken interludes, sung intervals, and ventriloquy. Ballet’s status as a narrative genre emerged only in the eighteenth century, following dance critics like Noverre, who called for a return to pantomimic forms of gesticulation from antiquity in order to imbue balletic virtuosity with narrative. “The ancients spoke with their hands,” Noverre writes about pantomime, to which Lincoln Kirstein adds centuries later, “in a universal tongue.” In tandem idiom, Mauss’s choreographic pictures, like corporeal cinema, transmit live media archaeology, generating an interpretive space and cross-historical framework for the production of gestural meaning.
 Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, “L’Après-midi d’un faune as a revision of Le Spectre de la rose,” Designing Dreams: A Celebration of Léon Bakst, ed. Célia Bernasconi, John E. Bowlt, and Nick Mauss. Monaco: Nouveau Musée National de Monaco; Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2016, pp. 28–36.
by Emma McCormick-Goodhart
Dance Office is a column dedicated to contemporary dance and performance art.
The following is an excerpt from the catalog Robert Indiana: Monumental Woods, published on the occasion of the opening of the show “Robert Indiana: Monumental Woods,” 2013. Robert Indiana (born September 13, 1928, died May 19, 2018) was an American artist living and working in Vinalhaven, United States.
Richard Brown Baker: When did you start working on these columns of wood?
Robert Indiana: They came first. They came before the word paintings. The constructions came into being because many of the old warehouses were being razed in the neighborhood for the widening of Water Street and the wood was just lying around waiting to be picked up, and I brought it into my studio and, as you know, at that time assemblage was kind of in the air.
RB: What year was this?
RI: ’59, I suppose.
RB: You didn’t start those until ’59. I see. I’m going to look since… to find out – –
RI: The constructions, too, were first used without words, but the words appeared on them first, Richard.
RB: I was just checking on the date of our meeting there in December 1959 because my recollection is that at the time you came with Larry Calcagno to my apartment to see my painting collection that you were not an exhibiting artist and were rather holding yourself, presenting yourself as a person who had not yet, wasn’t ready, shall we say? To exhibit. Is that correct?
RI: Quite correct.
RB: Then, this was really on the eve, anyway, of your developing these various achievements both in the sculptural form and in the painting form, isn’t it?
RI: I think I exhibited first in ’61. So there was a whole year there before I…
RB: ’61 is when you had your—
RI: “New Forms, New Media”.
RB: — show at Martha Jackson Gallery and the David Anderson thing. Well now, I wanted to figure out, to confirm my impression during this time, you did not seek galleries…
RI: No, I didn’t.
RB: You were not trying to; you were just trying to evolve…
RI: That’s right.
RB: … rather than to offer yourself, your work. You felt that you were a bit undeveloped, or you felt also that your tendency was somewhat contrary to what seemed to be the fashionable thing? Or both factors, or…?
RI: I think my main goal was just to develop or to acquire a body of work, Richard. I felt that it was very necessary to be able to work consistently in a given style for a given period of time. And that was my main preoccupation. It was very easy to zig and zag, to change from one piece to another, and I knew that I could not feel that I had found my own expression until I could cover a body of time with a given style and a given direction.
RB: Yes. Let’s get back to your wooden structures. You may have said, but I’m not sure when you first did those.
RI: Started in ’59.
RB: ’59. Now how long did you keep doing them? Are you still doing them?
RI: Still working on them. Still doing them occasionally.
RB: Still doing them occasionally. Well, you did some very beautiful ones certainly. Are these included in – any of these in the Walker Art Center show?
RB: Just one.
RI: Marine Works.
RB: Well, how many have you sent out into the world, as it were, in this form? How will we describe these: wooden columnar pieces with painted areas and lettering sometimes? Or always? Do they always have lettering?
RI: They do now. They didn’t to start with.
RB: Sometimes they have a little metal attachment, like a wheel.
RI: A wheel.
RB: Always have a wheel or just some…?
RI: No, not all of them have wheels. Most of them did. The wheels came about because of meeting Steve Durkee. He knew of a place where there were a number of old wheels that had been abandoned and provided me with a great number of uniform wood and iron wheels that had been probably for baby carriages or something. And he himself was working in this form at that time. And we often competed for the wood that was in these demolition sites.
RB: I see my opportunity to make history in art. I should buy up some commodity and give fifty or sixty pieces of it to a creative artist who will then manage to incorporate it into some stylistic development that may make history.
RI: This is what the Rewalds did with their Buick when they gave it to César.
RB: Oh, when they gave it to César to smash up. Well, I think they directed him to do that, though. I wouldn’t be able to conceive… But that is interesting, that just by having this group of wheels made accessible to you, you really worked them into a…
RI: However, it wasn’t an unnatural assimilation because I had become very interested in the circle and used, the circle consistently in my paintings. And after all, the wheel is merely a physical projection of the circle. So it was just a natural find and one, which I could put to use with complete ease and relevancy.
RB: Speaking of sculpture reminds me of one of the evenings that I interviewed you earlier. You were dashing off to a meeting of sculptors called by Louise Nevelson. What was the result of that?
RI: There’s due to be a group sculpture show at a gallery in New York, not my own, not Louise’s. I don’t know that very much is going to come of it, Richard; it would mean the inclusion of one of my constructions in this group show, that’s all — nothing — My new constructions, (and I guess I can’t call them constructions), my new pieces of wood are — I’ve had these columns for some time; they were originally the masts of old sailing ships, and you can still see the worn areas where the iron rings that held them together were once fitted onto. Then they became columns for these warehouses that were built after the fire of 1835. And then as the buildings were demolished I acquired several of these columns. I had to, unfortunately, had to cut them in half to get them into my loft; they were once nine feet tall. And I’m working now almost exclusively on them. They will not be assemblages in that there is nothing, there is no other material being added to them except words painted around the perimeter of the columns.
RB: Am I right in thinking, Bob, that you make use of the weatherworn surface of the wood? In most cases, you do not –unlike Louise Nevelson, for instance – most of her pieces are constructed of wood and then painted either black or white or gold or something. Yours have paint on them, as you say, like lettering or sort of bands, sometime of color perhaps, but a good portion of them remains weathered wood. Isn’t that correct?
RI: It is so, Richard, because the weathered wood was so beautiful that I was just reluctant . . .Now, here are a few which I did stain – I didn’t stain like Louise – but which I did paint black, because the wood was not in such good shape. It had been scarred and disfigured. But where the wood was in good shape I couldn’t resist leaving the natural surface, which of course therefore makes a separation between my painting and the constructions. To be consistent with my painting, my constructions probably should be made of brand new wood, which has no patina or age whatsoever. But that’s not how it got started. I found the wood. . .
RB: That’s an interesting point, isn’t it? I don’t see any reason you have to be consistent, but it is an interesting thing to reflect upon, that your paintings are completely freshly-painted sort of things; you don’t go in for the kind of surface which certain painters do which seems to repeat old walls or things like that, cracks and seams and discolorations. You reject that totally in our painting but you accept it in your wooden material in your sculptural work.
RI: Just as it was found. I think there’s validity in the “foundness” of the object.
RB: And yet there’s no question but what your, to my mind, maybe it’s because I’ve seen some of these wooden pieces from the very first time almost that I saw any of your own work, but they seemed to belong with your painting very much and, as you say, the circles and other things, the lettering –It’s all very consistent. Your style seems to have emerged almost; shall we say, fully matured?
RI: The work became harder and more geometric and then when I did start using words in 1960 and these were as I said, forced on the constructions, because the constructions just needed the words; they did not look complete without them. And they were only decorative until they had their words. This was the beginning of my present work.
RB: The words on the constructions were usually one word only.
RI: Yes. That’s right. And very brief, usually three letters or four letters.
RB: They could, though, have been simply abstract letters or something similar. . .
RI: They could have. . .
RB: Like Cy Twombly’s scratches or something. . .
RI: But they never were. They always meant – they always said something from the very beginning.
RB: Yes. I’m trying to recall — of course, it’s well known that Stuart Davis many years before you were painting incorporated words into his paintings. I suppose there were many other instances. But it wasn’t quite as general. In the last few years more people have been using words, haven’t they?
RI: It seems that everybody was using them. I think that was probably the incentive, Richard. Again, just like assemblages were in the air, everybody was making assemblages; everybody was beginning to use words. Remember that Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who I knew, (Ellsworth introduced me to them the very first year on the Slip) and at that time they were still doing department store window. They were still doing their display work. I even worked for them once on one of their display jobs.
RB: I didn’t even know they had worked in that fashion.
RI: Yes. They had a terrible job whereby they did mass displays that were sent all over the country to chain stores. . .
RB: The two together in association?
RI: Yes, and they got stuck in a bind and they needed help and they called up and so some of us went and helped them on these displays. But you see they were only two blocks away. Now I never became personal friends of Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg but they were both, particularly Rauschenberg, they were very concerned with assemblages. And Steve Durkee was making assemblages and then, of course, it all culminated in Martha Jackson’s “New Media New Forms” and eventually in the assemblage show at the Modern.
RB: How did you become known to the Martha Jackson Gallery? How did that develop? Martha Jackson Gallery is one of several that could claim to be among the leading galleries. It’s not automatically a cinch for an unknown artist to get consideration by them, I shouldn’t think.
RI: Not at all. It came about solely just through good luck, Richard. One of my neighbors on the Slip who had once wanted to be a painter himself and has now long since given up that ambition…
RB: Who was this?
RI: This was Rolf Nelson. He was on the Slip, oh, for a good two or three years just as a struggling artist like myself. . .
RB: I didn’t realize Rolf had intended to be a painter.
RB: If I’m not mistaken, he’s now got a gallery in California.
RI: Yes. He has his own gallery in Los Angeles. But in order to make ends meet he took a job as gallery assistant to Martha Jackson, and when their idea came up for an assemblage show, he, of course, knew of the things that I had been making and invited me to participate. In other words, he was responsible for bringing Martha down to the Slip, and she saw the pieces and said okay, and I was in the assemblage show. Then it was thrown again; there was a second version and I had. . .
RB: I think that show came in 1960.
RI: Yes. Both of them did. One was in the spring and one was in the fall.
RB: I saw the one in the spring. I missed the one in the autumn. And Steve Joy also — I saw Steve Joy today in his new gallery, Alan Auslander’s. But I remember they were going around visiting many artist’s studios, weren’t they? Trying to find new media. . .
RI: Of course, he didn’t have to search me out because he had known me for several years. And that was the beginning and, of course ,from there he became the director of the David Anderson Gallery, which was Martha’s son’s gallery.
RB: Who became the. . .?
RB: Rolf Nelson?
RI: Yes. So that then the next stop was a two-man show at the David Anderson Gallery with Peter Forakis and that was the real. . .
RB: Was it a show which contained just two or three of your paintings?
RI: No. Six.
RB: Six paintings. And. . .
RI: And many constructions.
RB: Many constructions.
RI: Because the garden was. . .
RB: The garden! Well, I sort of remember the garden. I thought possibly there hadn’t been room, since it was a joint show, for more than two or three of these paintings. And from this show Alfred Barr bought the painting that. . .?
RI: Nothing happened during the course of the show. Not a single thing of Peter’s or a single thing of mine was sold, and it was very disappointing because Rolf kept the whole operation secret. He didn’t want me to be disappointed. When the American Dream was called to the Modern to be looked at, he did not let me know because it was very possible that a work could come back rejected. They look at many, many more things than they ever accept, so he didn’t tell me until he knew that it had been accepted. And that was the real, that was the beginning of —
RB: Well, was it sent to the Museum because the Museum asked to have it sent, or was it just sent?
RI: No, no, of course not. The Museum asked for it to be sent. These details, though, I have never been completely filled in on. I’ve never even asked, it didn’t — I’m not very much concerned…
RB: But it was boost to your career, as any purchase by the Modern Museum is apt to be for any artist’s career in this country.
RB: How did Eleanor Ward (Stable Gallery) happen to come? I mean, was that easy to arrange, or…?
RI: I had nothing to do with it, Richard. It so happened that one of my pieces was being shown in the penthouse at the Museum of Modern Art. The curator of the penthouse, Campbell Wylly, knew my work and had selected this piece, and one day Eleanor Ward, I think, was just visiting the penthouse and she remarked that she liked my work very much, but was sorry that I was tied up. And Campbell merely let her know that I was not so committed as people thought. And that it might be very possible that I could be invited to show with her. And as it turned out, that was all arranged in one weekend. It just happened like that.
RB: Very good. Now I ask that partly because I have the impression that it’s not easy often to get a dealer of any standing to come to see an artist’s work.
RI: It helps if someone acts as an intermediary.
RB: Of course, it helps if they see an example on their own and like it, as this instance shows.
RB: But I mean if you try and drag somebody down, they are rather psychologically resistant, I think. But that is a good gallery, I think, to have got a connection with and your show was then only a year ago? When was that?
RI: It’s a year now, yes.
RB: A year now.
RI: It was last October.
RB: And that was really your first show anywhere other than —
RI: My first one-man show, yes.
RB: — other than that half show that David Anderson…?
RI: Well, I did have a three-man show, which I didn’t mention. I think on a previous tape I said something about my first loft being that of a former friend and classmate from Chicago, Paul Sanisardo, and in – oh, by ‘59 or ‘58 he had his own dance studio where he taught. And he had a foyer and he thought it would be very nice if he presented some small showcase exhibits in this foyer for the benefit of his dance students. And so he invited me to form a three-man show and I asked Steve Durkee and Dick Smith, and English painter who had taken a loft just a few blocks away from Coenties Slip on the waterfront, on Whitehall. They joined in with me, and we had a three-man show, which was roughly simultaneous to the two-man show at the David Anderson GalleryRB: I think maybe — Did I see this? I remember going to some show in which Dick Smith had some little construction-like things.
RI: That was it.
RB: Yes. Well then, I did see that.
RI: And I had just constructions. I didn’t show any paintings in that show. In fact, that was the point. It was a construction show. Steve Durkee exhibited some of his constructions, Dick exhibited his very small constructions, and mine, some of the ones. . .
RB: I think I met you through Richard – through Dick Smith, not through James Harvey.
RI: That’s very possible. I’ve really lost that. . .
RB: Well, it’s just that I now associate the two of you together and I can’t quite remember — maybe I met him through you. I don’t know. No, there was a man, Loren Libau who I met through Steve Joy, whom I think. . .
RI: Yes. Well, he lived just a block away on Broad Street.
RB: Well, he’s the one actually that brought Larry Calcagno, so it must have been through him…
RI: Loren, yes.
RB: He was busily trying to get into a gallery.
RI: I still see Loren once in a while. I don’t know whether he’s still painting now or not. It was he who interested Castelli in coming down. Castelli came to see his work and he was gracious enough to ask me to hang one of my paintings in his studio so that Castelli might see it at that time. And that’s the first painting of mine that Castelli saw. And Castelli later came to visit my studio at the very time when people were becoming interested in — shall we say, a number of people were becoming interested. But it was Eleanor Ward’s invitation which came through first and became final.
RB: Well, you really haven’t mentioned the one at the Museum of Modern Art, the American ‘63.
RI: Yes. Well, of course there was nothing acquired from that show, Richard. That’s the. . .
RB: No, but as far as participating in an important manifestation among the museum patronage that was an important thing.
RI: Well, that was the next most important thing that occurred was that inclusion, and that came very quickly, very quickly after my becoming affiliated with the Stable Gallery. Dorothy Miller came and saw my work…
RB: Came to the studio or…?
RI: Yes. And I was one of the first artists that she selected for the American Show.
RB: How many paintings did you have in that? I forget…
RI: Oh, it was, I think, six or seven, Richard. And one had to be omitted from the Modern Show because of lack of space. But it was re-entered in the show in its traveling aspect.
RB: I didn’t realize that that show was traveling. Where is it…?
RI: It’s going to about seven or eight museums all across the country.
RB: Really! Is this the first time that her American Show…
RI: I think so. I think so.
RB: . . .because Dorothy Miller on many occasions has selected shows called “Twelve Americans,” “Fifteen Americans” and various things, and I don’t recall their traveling around.
RI: Well, apparently they’ve gained in some sort of prestige and it’s going to Florida; it’s going to California; it’s going to Washington; it’s going to Canada; it’s going to Washington, D.C. It’s really going to make quite a circuit of the country.
RB: Well, when we stop to – I suppose just in the last year then there must be all these shows – Pop art. Now, how do you link yourself with Pop art? You’re included in Pop art. Pop art I think as a phrase is a sort of catch-all that’s caught on so much that I and everyone else sort of use it automatically, and it’s a kind of tie-in with certain other new artists. And it’s useful promotionally as far as your career is concerned. But your work to my mind is quite different from most of the called Pop artists, like is quite James Rosenquist and Lichtenstein. But the fact that that probably led to your inclusion in more shows than might have been the case otherwise, because there are all these sudden exhibits that include—
RI: It’s really happened more, Richard, and of course my own attitude about where I stand is pretty well explained in the current Art News.
RI: Swenson’s article. But all this happened really because of the time thing. For instance, Rosenquist and I were old friends and we knew each other’s work intimately. I mean, I saw his development and he saw my development.
RB: But they’re certainly not too closely allied.
RI: No, not at all. But, as I’ve said about other things, like assemblage and the use of word, these things, they sort of, they’re in the air; people’s ideas are intermingling and – not that I ever – you know there is no program — the Pop people did not sit down together and. . .
RB: I know that.
RI: . . .decide now overnight we’ll do this, as maybe the Dadaists did in Zurich or something. There was never anything like that. This happened rather independently, but I did know Claes Oldenburg, he’s an old classmate of mine from Chicago; I knew Rosenquist. I did not know Wesselman. But I soon did. I mean from seeing their first shows.
RB: Yes. Now you’re all lumped together as if you were members of the same football team.
RI: But there is an element in my work which, you know, no one would ever have coined the term “Pop” for me…
RI: . . .no one would have thought, “Ah! here is the artist of the popular image.” But there is an aspect to it, and this is mainly reflected in my paintings, my “Eat” paintings. I mean this is taken from a roadside sign. There are literally thousands of these signs all over the country. That painting came directly from that sign, and painted in the manner of the sign just as much as Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottle is painted in the manner of a Coca-Cola sign. Now that only happened by coincidence with that, shall we say, that one painting. But just by the very nature of that, and maybe a few subsequent paintings that I’ve done, I do have a tangential interest or contact with Pop.
RB: Oh, I think you do! What I meant was that so many museums now seem to be wanting to put on some sort of a show including Pop art, which means including you in a number of different ways they approach it, but it probably has accelerated the dispersion among museum galleries of your paintings just as the others individually too, by the fact that there is a group to which you can be affiliated, so it’s not just you alone bucking the trend, but a group of you.
RI: Well, there’s an aspect there, Richard, and that is as far as I’m concerned there really are only four Pop artists working in New York who are really Pop and nothing else but Pop.
RB: They are. . .?
RI: And for me that’s: First of all, Lichtenstein and Warhol, Rosenquist and Wesselman. Now these four are, to me, only Pop. I couldn’t think of them as being — you know, they’re not in any way related to abstract expressionism or surrealism or realism.
RB: Well, I think Rosenquist has certain surrealistic aspects.
RI: If he does, he fights this. He doesn’t want to be a surrealist. Yes, there are certain art overtones but that’s all. Whereas the other people who are sometimes exhibited with – and this includes my self – who are exhibited with the Pop people – Rauschenberg, Dine, Jasper Johns, and people like this, they all are something else. They too have Pop inclinations or Pop overtones but essentially they are something else, as essentially I am a hard-edge formalist.
RI: In the Washington, D.C. formalist show I fit in; I don’t say I fit in perfectly, because I was one of the few painters who did use words and, for instance, there was the Beware! Danger! American Dream Number Four. I used the imagery of the danger stripes that are on the backs of trucks and on the street signs and so forth. Well, this has a Pop aspect to it, which is not just formalism, but — and I think perhaps my painting was a little, perhaps just a little out of character with that show. . .
RB: I didn’t see that show; but would you have been twice shown then at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art – once as a Pop. . .?
RI: No, no, I was not included in the Pop, and I was included in the Formalist, so there is this real split in that some people feel very strongly that I’m only this; other people feel yes, but I’m also that.
RI: And this of course, as you suggest, is working to my advantage, it’s very true; it gives me an exposure and an audience which I would never have without it, and I’m not going to discourage this, mainly because I like Pop and there’s going to be a certain phase of my work which will probably be closer to Pop and I would like to, shall we say? I’d like to be an artist more like Picasso than like Rothko. I don’t feel that I have to go down one straight, narrow road at all. I would like to do several different things.
Richard Brown Baker (1912-2002) was a major force of vanguard collecting in post-war American art. Referred to as the ‘collector’s collector’ Baker was a devout advocate of contemporary art who sought out young, un-established artists and formed an over 1600 work collection of every major movement of the second half of the twentieth century. He was an early collector and supporter of Robert Indiana and donated his entire collection to museums, with the majority going to the Yale University Museum of Art.
The recommendations streamed in before my ferry even docked on Randall’s Island. “The food-in-a-jar at Tyme is terrible.” “It’s nice that Court Street Grocers has so many vegetarian sandwich options.” “Morgenstern’s is right by my booth, you better come eat an ice cream cone with me.” A thoughtfully stacked food court has helped establish the London-based Frieze fair since it first pitched its (actual) tent in New York in 2012, and this year the ample selection leaned heavily toward comfort food. Nothing too fancy, but packed with umami; it’s the type of food that inspires dedicated neighborhood followings.
While the redundant inclusion of both Frankies Spuntino and Roberta’s — two pizza places beloved in their respective corners of the city — only drives home the fact that comfort reigns, any honest account of the fair must mention the fatigue-inducing discomfort of the tent’s filtered light and stagnant air. What fuels the whole thing is iced coffee: it is the only substance that adequately cuts through the sticky hugs and an afternoon of squinting. Lower East Side-based Fat Radish supplied my first cup of cold brew, and it was so watery and bad that only the ice offered something interesting to talk about. For twelve dollars, there’s nothing more offensive than those ugly, cylindrical ice barrels that slowly accumulate on the chilled steel tit of an ice machine. I don’t have dental insurance. Don’t serve me ice that’s engineered to be structurally sound.
Fat Radish is more the type of place for sweet tea than coffee anyway. Its menu takes the farm as inspiration, and, at Frieze, they designed dishes to showcase single ingredients. A dish of tomatoes was charred, curried, and built upon a foundation of dark, whole-wheat toast. Roasted carrots were grounded by the earthy aromatics of seaweed. And a mishmash slaw of veggies made sure you looked for the charred broccoli buried in between (though it was still a bit buried). Sometimes they leaned too heavily on the farmhouse pantry: pickled beets, grapefruit, and fennel were brought in to bolster a lackluster fluke crudo. My spring bounty aptly concluded, though, with a wad of delicious rhubarb Eton mess (that’s its real name).
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Photography by Sam Korman.
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Photography by Sam Korman.
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Photography by Sam Korman.
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Photography by Sam Korman.
I would need another iced coffee immediately, and iced coffee number two came from Gertie, a fancy cafe that follows a high-end model repeated in nearly every neighborhood in New York. Did I ever indulge. The cold brew was toffee rich, especially given the touch of oat milk I added. Stacks of cookies lined a glass display case in sumptuous, leathery tones, and, having solicited the barista’s favorite one, he selected for me a homespun pastry pervaded by caramelized brown sugar. With the coffee plugged into my lips like an IV drip, the next hour or more would find me on a long stroll — I was only there for the food, after all. I picked at the cookie from the depths of my tote bag, and the beverage would outlast its crummy paper straw
Dinner would only supply an addendum to my afternoon, perhaps because my eventual tally of three iced coffees stymied my appetite. Still, the language surrounding food at the evocatively named wine bar Foul Witch, if not the food itself, brought some fulfillment to my day. A glass of Grüner was my attempt at happy hour, and I used my hands to pick at a refreshing gem salad with mint. But a flummoxing double-digit price tag for a hunk of Roberta’s-made baguette really raised questions. And as I think back on the succulent seared scallop ceviche, my mind is locked on a semantic problem: you can’t call it ceviche if you cooked it first. The true riddle is why I decided to gamble on shellfish at 5:30pm after the long, hot, poorly refrigerated afternoon, especially right before the ferry ride back home. In spite of all the logistical issues, though, I survived.
In the aftermath of organizing an unrealized exhibition at artist-run institution Odium Fati in San Francisco, K.r.m. Mooney offers a set of relations between participating figures. These six installments, contributed to Flash Art’s “In Residence” column, are a means for the artist to pursue the significance of each context-specific practice and the potential actions, kinships, and alignments between these figures.
Naming a place one has a stake in, where one lives and works, is not inconsequential when the lines we follow function as forms of alignment or as a way of being in line with others. This also implies our corporeal alignments, behaviors, and orientations. To think in spatial terms, the spaces I move through — their responsiveness toward difference, economics, climate, and physical arrangement — create a set of affordances: a tendency or possibility for a one set of actions or forms of engagement over others. Working outside of a center, there is a turn to artist-run spaces and a potential to see through a different set of values when it comes to producing and exhibiting art. A dustpan, a kitchen, a stove, a bed: these are all things I’ve inherited from past exhibitions. There is a kind of transparency relative to the maintenance of space and the body that I’ve learnedas a condition of where I work and live.
Pied-à-terre inhabited a garage beneath artist McIntyre Parker’s apartment. This quiet space provided a ground for exhibitions in San Francisco from 2011 to 2015. Positioned by Parker as an off-space and occasional publisher, it was a single-work exhibition format where, during open hours, one might encounter a breach of its inherently domestic infrastructure as a consequence of Parker and other tenants living above. One entered via a driveway with a slightly lower-than-ground-level slope. A concrete platform provided the main spatial delineation, with no wall to make clear the space of the exhibition and its perennial edges used for tenant storage. This was an intention, an open line between domesticity and exhibition; a building as movement of sedimentation and stabilization, but also a site of opening space and living.
Taking place at the same 2nd Avenue address, artist-run institution Odium Fati inherited multiple forms of significance historically and in the present. As a result of Parker’s relocation, the transference of space from Pied-a-terre to Odium Fati occurred out of necessity — an act of collective recuperation but also friendship. Felt aspects of Pied-à-terre were passed on; beyond exhibitions occurring in the same physical location, they continued to arrive out of an economy of means. For example, I spoke at length with Benjamin Ashlock and Diego Villalobos about the timing of the exhibition I planned to organize. We speculated its arrival in the program around the spring of 2018, though all agreed: only as the fullness of daily life permitted.
Most artist-run institutions are less staid organizations — sites of mutual entanglement operating from a coming-togetherness and coarticulation that is always implicated in a practice of self-questioning: What kind of institution are we? What kinds of values do we institutionalize? What forms of practice do we reward, and what kinds of rewards do we aspire to? Through which figures and citations do we build our dwellings? As worlds are built out of citational habits, the potential to gather works for this exhibition was a way of picking up figures as a mode of revision, a means of thinking with my own practice. A further attunement and attention to what gets gathered up, used, and shared; an attentiveness to which seeds should be saved for future re-seeding, future re-worlding. Odium Fati offered a space of physical and locally situated reflexivity by way of Pied-à-terre’s embodied history, allowing the works to enter the significance of this site. A possibility to lay out another path through which site and artworks are encountered and mutually constituted in a back-and-forth exchange, the goal of which may change as forms and their values enfold.
K.r.m. Mooney is an artist living and working in Oakland, California.
“How you live your life is your business. But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and, with it, the joy you’ve felt.” —Professor Perlman, Call Me By Your Name
The monologue at the end of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name has already attained somewhat mythic proportions. Fans of the film refer to it in shorthand as The Monologue or The Dad’s Speech. Warmly delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg, the actor who plays protagonist Elio’s father, it’s an affectionate gesture of understanding and passed-down wisdom. Stepping out of time, the words allay our conditioned concern for a queer character.
It’s also a peculiarly florid moment of dialogue in a film that otherwise keeps things casual, even when discussing Heraclitus or Bach. It’s supposed to be real, tender speech. Only, lifted directly from André Aciman’s novel, upon which it’s based, it doesn’t quite feel that way. It’s prose — purple prose, at that — and people don’t speak in prose. Not off the page, at least.
The general reaction to The Monologue has been unadulterated praise: for its emotional weight, its poignancy, its message. And yet, this isn’t how people talk. Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory’s decision to retain the monologue in its literary form is a telling sign of the type of verisimilitude they’re attempting here. It isn’t how people talk, but rather how they wish they had been spoken to. Coming as it does in 1983, and despite the film’s intellectually progressive setting for Olive and Elio’s utopic love story, the speech is an anachronistic projection that takes the form of a retcon, an intrusion into the past. It has inspired scores of gay men to pay Call Me By Your Name a common compliment: it’s the film I wish I had when I was young.
A similar sentiment surrounds Greg Berlanti’s recent Love, Simon. The film tells the story of a well-adjusted though closeted teen, Simon, who begins an anonymous email correspondence with a fellow classmate (nicknamed Blue) who is also closeted. What follows sticks closely to the Hughesian template for teen romance flicks, but it is notable as the first studio-made film to feature a gay protagonist in high school. Troye Sivan, a young, openly gay singer, who appears on the film’s soundtrack, highlighted this historic aspect in a tweet on February 2nd, writing, “Had I seen that movie when I was twelve, I thoroughly believe it would’ve changed the shape of my life.” Almost anticipating the “how?” that naturally follows such a declaration, the twenty-two-year-old millionaire adds, “or at least made me feel a little more at ease!”
What then to make of the desire to correct the past, to impart upon it a more coherent and supportive design? The very need for this desire is a bit baffling: queer cinema didn’t begin in 2018, and if gay boys managed to find Come Undone (2010) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) before the advent of streaming services, what void would Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name be filling? Peter Debruge notes in his review of Love, Simon for Variety that it’s “precisely the kind of movie its main character so desperately needs,” a somewhat tragic, Sisyphean notion that nevertheless suggests that this is more an issue of style than substance. Berlanti acknowledges as much in an interview with Vanity Fair: “People are used to seeing two guys kiss on their TV set and in their art-house cinema. But it’s not really been in their AMC [theater] and treated as any other thing.”
Both Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name attempt to thread the needle between a play for universality and the specificity that any coming-out story requires (which is, to Simon’s disappointment, not a universal experience). Both films make structural choices that lead us toward that universality, though often at the expense of the details that heterosexual films and niche gay films — burdened neither by the mark of difference nor mass appeal — use to ground themselves in reality.
The central narrative device in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the novel by Becky Albertalli upon which Love, Simon is based, is the mystery of which of Simon’s classmates he’s writing to and simultaneously falling in love with. That tension could have easily been spoiled by the film’s stylized efforts to make email correspondence compellingly visual. So to keep viewers guessing who his mystery pen pal may be, the film enlists different actors to read Blue’s letters throughout the film, depending on who Simon believes him to be at that moment. It’s a clever trick but one that ultimately ends up undermining the central love story. The film does such a good job at convincing us that it could be anyone, that by the time the climatic reveal arrives we’ve been shortchanged the details of a love story for the fact of one. “It could be anyone” doesn’t exactly describe a great romance.
There comes a point near the end of the film when the plot seems to be building toward a more modest proposal: that Simon may never discover Blue’s identity and that he’ll have to find love elsewhere. It’s a reasonable enough conclusion, as he hasn’t spent meaningful time with any of the potential Blues — at least not enough for the audience to be rooting for anyone in particular. But the director and writers are intent upon on giving us what they believe we deserve to see, so much so that the reveal feels arbitrary, a deus ex machina against the natural drive of the story. Like The Monologue, it too comes from some extra-narrative place.
Both films eschew traditional verisimilitude; they show us not how things are, or how things were, but how things ought to have been (Simon’s mother, played by Jennifer Garner, even gives her own heartfelt version of The Monologue). As such, they function as phantoms of the films we instead had to subsist upon in our own youth. Simon may have his own film to show him the way, but we were left to queer the high school tales of John Hughes or the slender, fleeting romances of Eric Rohmer that have clearly influenced Berlanti and Guadagnino. The latter goes so far as to restage the volleyball game from Claire’s Knee (1970).
“The personal lexicon we bring to a film … is our surest and most trusted reason for claiming it a masterpiece,” Andre Aciman wrote in a 2013 essay for The American Scholar about Rohmer’s 1969 film My Night At Maud’s. He goes to great depths in describing his life surrounding the moment he stumbled into an Upper West Side theater to view it, in the early 1970s, as a young, brokenhearted man.
Aciman, as a straight man, identifies easily with Rohmer’s films via the encoded bias of cinema that Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon hope to correct. Rohmer’s films invite this type of rapport through their style and structure. To us, the narrative unfolds at an ambling pace, the camera timidly hovering around a cramped apartment or steadily observing the commotion of a public beach. We aren’t given the appropriate cues or cuts, and characters blather on without reverence for plot or tension. Instead, viewers must find secondhand evidence through the characters’ own quests for structure, a recurring theme. Rohmer’s films are a coincidence of design: old friends run into each other on the street, brief glances become enduring friendships, and vacations from the everyday become the everyday itself. In the absence of a more typical emotional structure, viewers tend to read all the cues at once. A monologue is both profound and obnoxious. Someone may be sharing themselves, but no one else is paying attention.
Within this loose, quotidian form, Aciman sees his own life. Trivial conversations become potent. His unexciting romances feel cinematic. Even the act of ducking into the theater alone to watch My Night at Maud’s becomes a part of his own personal film. Casting a retrospective glance, he is “replaying his life in the key of Rohmer.” Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon succeed in this act of reflection: seeing a queer character on screen, one imagines one’s own life as a film.
But Aciman describes an inverse transaction, one that completes the exchange between film and viewer: Rohmer seems to be borrowing directly from Aciman’s own life, so exact is his verisimilitude. Rohmer has, he writes, “borrowed my night for an hour or so … given [it] a rhythm, an intelligence, a design, and then projected it onto the screen while promising to return it to me after the show … so that I’d have my life back, but seen from the other side — not as it was, or as it wasn’t, but as I’d always imagined it should be, the idea of my life.” Again, how things ought to have been. This is, he admits, a misreading of Rohmer, and of his own life, but one made possible by the distance Rohmer keeps from his own films: upon that space, Aciman can impose his personal lexicon.
Aciman highlights Rohmer’s reliance on the intimacy of conversation to fuel the eroticism of his films. But his own novel is rife with carnal expression: eyes darting down to trace the outline of a hard-on through shorts; masturbating into the disembodied avatars of swim trunks; and, yes, fruit. Guadagnino’s film, however, plays coy with both methods, opting to turn torture to teasing and consummation to suggestion.
In another of Rohmer’s films, Le Rayon Vert (1986), the heroine Delphine floats through holiday retreats while trying to relax. She’s too insecure to settle in one place, and her inability to vacation properly tells us of her inability to live confidently. While the film itself has some rigid constraints — we’re told what day it is before a new scene begins — within those constraints it yawns and stretches and hums. Delphine meets an assortment of characters but we’re never told which to hate or love, who to root for; she herself doesn’t know. This ambiguity, which in Love, Simon led to a shrugging apathy, here feels more like the ambiguity of life itself. The structural and moral imposition of Love, Simon is that he has to find somebody, anybody; in Le Rayon Vert we are left without all the standard signifiers upon which we rely for a film to tell us where we are going. So instead we watch Delphine roughly craft this structure for herself.
She is looking for it in the form of the “green ray,” Jules Verne’s mythic light that reveals one’s own thoughts and those of all others. Only by breaking through the impenetrable minds of those around her will she make them cohere. We need her to find it too; without it we’re left just as formless.
Both directors share an affection for classicism and the apolitical: Rohmer’s disinterest in the protests of 1968, for instance, and his vehement rejection of socialism in Cahiers du cinema; or Guadagnino’s purposeful omission of AIDS in Call Me By Your Name (he went so far as to move the setting of the film from 1987 to 1983 to de-emphasize the crisis, though if he were taking liberties he might as well have moved the action further back).
Rohmer’s characters, however, affect a sort of comedy of aloofness; they are pitiable in their apathy and their actions (taking middle-class holidays for example). They are not inherently political, and in fact this is key to our identifying with them. Oliver and Elio have no such luck: falling in love with another man is as political in 1983 as it is in 1987, just as it is all the way up until Love, Simon tells us that it’s all okay.
Guadagnino and Berlanti’s films both lose the details that complete the exchange. Their stated attempts at universality bridge the distance, and the dual substitution Aciman describes in My Night At Maud’s is only half complete: we replay our lives in the key of Guadagnino or Berlanti, but they know where they’re going, tell us as much, and expect we follow along. The fantasy of The Monologue comes down from above — it travels from 1983 to 2018, narrowing time and hardening structure. The retconning asserts itself: Jennifer Garner looks into the past and sees the benevolent face of Michael Stuhlbarg assuredly nodding, and it’s as if she never had to wonder about the right words to say. She has found them before she ever had to look. They do not borrow from our own lives but rather from each other, from a shared notion of what must be spoken and how.
When staring out into the fire at the end of the film, Timothée Chalamet’s Elio is making sense of his own story. He may be looking for the green ray himself — and he may find it — but it’s not ours to share.
Movie Night is a column exploring contemporary film semiotics and thoughts about moviegoing in general.
Kevin Champoux is a New York-based writer and director’s assistant.
In Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin describes Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) moving backwards: “His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe.” Though the angel in Klee’s monoprint would like to “awaken the dead and piece together what had been smashed,” a storm drives him into a future to which his back is turned. Benjamin concludes: “This storm is what we call progress.”
Benjamin’s passage serves as a useful prelude to a larger discussion on Russian Cosmism, a philosophical movement propounded by nineteenth-century librarian and Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Fedorov. Whereas Benjamin perceived the past as a sublime, destructive spectacle, or “rubble on top of rubble,” Fedorov considered the dead, the victims of modernity’s progress, as pure potential. He believed that we share an ethical imperative to resurrect the dead via scientific and technological intervention. Because there were many Trotsky-supporting proponents of Cosmism, the movement suffered suppression by Stalin in the 1930s: numerous protagonists ended up in labor camps; artworks were taken out of circulation; manuscripts were confiscated and destroyed. Given this comprehensive destruction, Cosmism has suffered a considerable lapse in critical attention — something Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism serves to restore.
Etymologically, “cosmos” means beauty, harmony, universal order. Cosmism’s goal was to achieve a cosmos on Earth. It is largely an argument that death constitutes a future, challenging how we preserve, historicize, and compose legacy, and questioning how we relate to a world in which everything is eternal. Given this interest in the administration of life, social organization, rejuvenation, and resurrection, Cosmism is an optimistic, wildly imaginative bedfellow to Foucault’s political-realist biopolitics. Picture, for instance, Fedorov’s vision to conquer outer space, realizing a planetary settlement for resurrected ages with each planet its own epoch, the stratosphere a constellated meta-museum. With its materialist, anti-capitalist stance, Cosmism can also be read as a precursor to the critique of accelerationism proposed by the likes of Benjamin Noys. Accelerationist thinking makes reference to Walter Benjamin’s view on history, in which technological progress is like a freight train speeding toward the abyss, which only the revolution can stop. As Arseny Zhilyaev says in the book’s section called “Cosmic Doubts,” “If we replace ‘revolution’ with ‘resurrection,’ then we arrive at Fedorov’s actual position.”
Rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky also believed in the radical and materialistic unity of “thinking creatures” and matter itself. As Zhilyaev notes, “according to Tsiolkovsky, humans should ultimately be transformed into immaterial organisms capable of acting on a universal level.” Though the Cosmist vision may appear arcane and eccentric in its mystical panpsychism, Art Without Death unpacks the technical and design-based proposals of the movement, including Alexander Bogdanov’s research into blood transfusion; Viktor Glushkov’s proposal for an interconnected computer network to regulate production and distribution; and Alexander Chizhevsky’s ionizer lamps, his “chandelier.”
In “Factories of Resurrection,” Anton Vidokle provides insightful accounts of the mergence of light and color to produce therapeutic effects in film. NASA, for instance, discovered that red LED lights accelerate the healing of skin. Cosmism arguably embraces such legacies, occupying a space shaped by failed plans, accidental resolutions, unrealized projects, and designs that produce something other than what was intended.
The reinsertion of Cosmism into Russian history from a European standpoint implies that Fedorov’s philosophy inevitably rubs against a Westernized intellectual context. Although one of the driving forces of the historical avant-gardes — Futurism, Dada, Surrealism — was the determination to fuse art with life, for Boris Groys in “Contemporary Art Is the Theology of the Museum,” Cosmism wants to corral and protect life, meaning immortalism bears some similarity to a “radical museumification of life.” Here, Russian Cosmism is used to affirm Groys’s long-held argument that the museum may be the most transformative place for art. It feels like an oblique reading given some of the fantastical ambitions of the Cosmists; without original excerpts or evocative quotes, the tone and texture of the Cosmist’s writings are laid to rest.
In “Cosmic Catwalk and the Production of Time,” Hito Steyerl highlights the misogynist contradictions of Cosmism, emphasizing that the maintenance and reproduction of life is a very gendered technological construct. “If the reproduction and maintenance of life is already a cosmist activity,” she says, “then one has to recognize its strong connection to reproductive labor and so-called domestic activities. Caretakers, parents, nurses, cooks, and cleaners are the first cosmists.” In “Cosmic Doubts,” Zhilyaev also highlights the central contradiction in Fedorov’s philosophy: that by insisting on mankind’s leading role in the transformation of the universe, by turns preserving his place as the crown in creation, he also denies the inevitability of a continued evolution that should eventually supplant anthropocentricism itself. Mankind asserts itself into subordination.
This is something technological singularity has facilitated. Art Without Death, too, considers the Cosmist echoes within the transhumanist movement now bankrolled by tech giants like PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel and Google’s head of engineering Ray Kurzweil, both staunch believers in immortalist possibilities. From data surveillance and biometric analytics to automated health care and AI, so much of what the Cosmists hoped for is now the stuff of Silicon Valley techno-utopian ideology and transitory next-gadget kitsch. In “Chaos and Cosmos,” Franco “Bifo” Berardi asserts the psychological and sensorial damage of such invention: “Web 2.0 enabled access to a boundless infosphere allowing interaction. Web 3.0 will likely be an accessible archive of stimulated experiences in full synaesthesis: immersion in perceptual universes.”
To consider Cosmism is to reckon with memory. Fedorov viewed the entire surface of our planet’s organic layer as an enormous cemetery. We have indexed its losses and rendered their histories searchable, failing, as Brian Kuan Wood writes, “to register the pain of losing something much larger than can be named — a deep relation to the world, to the cosmos.” Art Without Death is a timely examination of the cost of progress, questioning the motives for our desperate preservation. Cosmism intimates the progress we wanted may not be to index our losses, but to bring them back out of the rubble.
Subtext is a column by Alex Bennett exploring new and old books, art and ephemera.
Alex Bennett is a London-based writer, online editor at Novembre magazine and co-founder of Tinted Window publishing.