Interview with Sal Randolph , Berlin, 5 November 2002 by Franciska Zólyom for Exindex a Hungarian art site. [image: Ellen Harvey making a welcome mat for the Free Manifesta Headquarters June, 2002]
Franciska Zólyom: If I told you that I was a Hungarian art historian working on my thesis about social sculpture, what would you reply? Who are you ?
Sal Randolph: I guess I would reply that I’m an artist from New York, working mainly on independent art projects that are social architecture, social organisations or possibly even social sculpture. Although it’s not exactly the expression I use, it is certainly part of the thinking that falls within that concept.
F.Z.: Your work aroused a lot of attention when you did the free biennial in New York earlier this year. Was that also a parallel event to an officially organised art show, as it was in Frankfurt?
S.R..: There is a very big biennial in New York: the Whitney Biennial, and it was definitely a kind of response to that. Actually, they had a bit of the work in Central Park, but the biennial itself was mainly confined to the museum. And the idea here every time they organise this biennial is very much about the idea of selecting – to select the most interesting best young artists. In fact, I very much like the work of the curator who organised the biennial this year. Nevertheless, I thought that this whole idea of selecting was deeply problematic, so I wanted to have a biennial that took place everywhere except in the museum. I wanted it to be throughout the whole city, and I made no selections. It was an experiment to see if it would be interesting, to see what would happen.
F.Z.: Probably more than ever, the dynamics of selection have very decisive consequences on both the credibility of the curator as a public agent who defines values and that of the artist whose work is introduced into the art market. Did you also reflect upon this in your work?
S.R..: My work has to do a lot with an idea that is very deeply a part of certainly the American culture: i.e., that only a few can be known, only a few can be preserved; that there is good art and bad art – that there is a sense, a kind of filtering job, that the museum and galleries are doing to keep the public away from bad art that might bore them or “hurt” them in some way. There is a kind of actual fear of that art. To me, in a psychoanalytical sense, it was very interesting: something that everybody is so afraid of. I was very curious, and one of the reasons I wanted to do the project was that I wanted to see all that “bad art”. Actually, I thought that would be difficult and challenging for me, too, standing there with art that I thought was very bad.
F.Z.: Bad in which sense?
S.R..: (laughs) That’s it exactly: I think this question of bad art is not even answerable.
F.Z.: Did you expect that you would be confronted with old-fashioned, anachronistic or simply overly traditional artistic approaches like epigones of modernist sculpture or abstract expressionism?
S.R..: Yes, I guess so. Some of that tradition I like, of course – I did feel that it would be art that was… You know it’s hard to say, because we really didn’t get very much of this bad art. Now, it’s a kind of fantasy of what bad art is but I imagined not so much only just traditional, but people who were pursuing their work in a sort of unthinking or retrograde kind of way. I mean, there are definitely people I know who do traditional work that I like. I don’t know what is that bad art that I’m so afraid of, or that everybody is so afraid of.
F.Z.: In the context of free manifesta, you use the term “self-selection” of artists who applied for participation. Do you think there is really such a mechanism?
S.R..: Yes, I found that people curated themselves actually fairly well. Especially in New York, I really noticed that most of the participants were people interested in the same questions that I was – that otherwise they wouldn’t have cared about the show if they weren’t interested in these questions of art and money, inclusion and exclusion, public space and commercial space or institutional space. I guess this sort of political story of the show, because in New York the art market is so powerful that it was a question of doing something that was completely outside of the art market but had a certain scale to it. I found there were all kinds of work that people had been doing in the ’60’s, and some of these artists were still working, invisibly, because there is no dialogue about this kind of work that’s going on now.
F.Z.: What was the response to your project?
S.R..: It did stir something up. I uncovered a lot of artists who were doing work that wasn’t really being talked about or shown in the context of either museums or of group shows or gallery shows. Many of them showed in galleries, but they showed a salable version of their work, and there were these other projects that they loved, that they couldn’t really show. And so I came to feel that there was a big network of people out there doing “free art” – whatever that exactly means. Art where no money is changing hands.
F.Z.: Speaking of money, how did you cover the actual costs?
S.R..: It was very inexpensive: I just paid for it. There was one big party, and we printed a map of the city with the full schedule on it, and I designed the website. It was an organisation of one person, so there was no one to hire, and that was the whole thing, in fact. For 6 months, I was involved full-time with the free biennial and the free manifesta, so I completely neglected the free words project. People would write to me, and I was barely able to write back. It is extremely difficult to keep all these projects alive: some of them end though, which is actually useful.
F.Z.: Where did the free biennial finally take place?
S.R..: All over the city – outside and inside. Some of it in people’s studios: there were obviously net-art projects, telephone and mail projects. It represented a very broad idea of what public space could be.
F.Z.: What about the juridical part of such a project? In New York, e.g., are you free to intervene in the public space?
S.R..: I think is very much like in Germany, for instance: if you stand on a street corner and make your performance for ten minutes, let’s say – that’s not exactly illegal. Some of the things that took place in the public space were not illegal, but some were. Swoon did a great illegal outdoor street party for the free biennial . With a noise-band and postering art in the streets, with works by 15-20 artists, many of whom are part of this Swoon Union Project and fire-dancers, and so on.
F.Z.: Do you think that such events are comparable to the early times of the techno-movement, when people believed in free and spontaneous communication through partying?
S.R..: Yes, possibly. I believe in parties – they are kind of magical. One could say that the party is a very ancient tradition as an art form: the festival religious tradition of parties. I think a lot can happen at a party. This is partly why I like (Rirkrit) Tiravanija’s work: it is the party-like, event-like quality that it has. Something is given – usually at a party something is being given: food or music – and people come together, and maybe for a minute their habits are not the same in that new place.
F.Z.: Coming back to free manifesta ,could you tell me how you came to know about the offer Christoph Büchel made on ebay ?
S.R..: I got the invitation by e-mail. I’m on a regular art mailing-list called e-flux , a sort of announcement list for museums and galleries, generally. The auction took place on the ebay website, so the bidding was public, and there were about – I’m just guessing – 30 different people who were bidding on this.
In the end, free manifesta had 225 entries, many of which were groups, so that approximately 300 people were involved. Again, I designed the website, I composed a list with free culture links, including texts by Marcel Mauss, the Situationists, etc. That is a sort of theoretical basis of these last few projects, such as free words ,free biennial and free manifesta . That’s what I was reading while I was thinking about doing them: I was studying the Situationists, Dadaists, Marcel Mauss, net culture, etc.
F.Z.: One of the presumptions in your thinking is that social speakers gain their access to broad channels of communication and to actual power through a consensus, which is negotiated by a larger group (the public). The consensus is therefore variable and alterable. Is it the active participation of many that you try to evoke by using the term social architecture?
S.R..: For me, the term social architecture has a number of implications: the idea of an organisation or a structure created by consensus is one of them. I picked the term because I was trying to help myself and to help other people think about the way social organisations could be art forms. Architecture implies a structure that people use and inhabit. The word catches both the formal and structural aspects of the idea, and also the sense of an artwork, which can also be functional, a use-space.
Unlike physical architecture, however, social architecture is mainly created in the imagination and expectation of its participants. It can be created, destroyed or refashioned very quickly and fluidly, under some conditions it can endure. Social architecture is a kind of living form, in a continuous act of self-creation: what Niklas Luhman and other theorists have termed autopoeisis.
At the beginning of the conversation, you brought up Joseph Beuys and his concept of social sculpture. Though Beuys is of course enormously interesting, a lot of qualities in his work that are very particular to him, like the shamanistic qualities, are definitely not a part of my work. I think that I was more influenced originally by people who were influenced by Beuys, and I found my way back to this aspect of his work later. It was people like Ben Kinmont or Tiravanija who made me interested in that kind interactive, outside-of-the-gallery work. My very early influences were John Cage and Gertrude Stein – an idea of art that is playful and that has a lot of chance and randomness in it. Cage was able to work in so many different media so freely, and was able to live freely, which is something I admire.
F.Z.: Free words consists of 3000 books that you “shoplift” into bookstores, instead of taking them away. People discover them in the shelves and can take them home for free. The text in the book is a compilation of words in a neutral, nonhierarchical order, which reminds me of the continuous flow on a digital banner.
S.R..: The purpose of the text is to give the feeling that you can use it for whatever purpose you want, and not necessarily read it from beginning to end. I heard people say all different things about how they use it: some people are doing art projects with it, cutting it up or making a journal out of it, or one woman even told me that she was teaching her five-year-old child to read with it… People use it for their own reasons, and I don’t need to control what those are. I tried with the design to make that feeling palpable. I was thinking also just in a personal way of minimalist painting, wishing that in another life I was a minimalist monochrome painter – or Agnes Martin. I accumulated these words that I was using for writing other poems, and I never expected them to appear in this order that I was just collecting them in. Before I started this work, I was looking at all of my writings of the last ten years, all of the poems and all of the raw material, and I suddenly realised that I was more interested in all the raw material than I was in the finished poems. Whenever you write, there is this quality to it, a kind of self-consciousness, this feeling that someone is going to read it someday, even if it’s just a diary. But this, especially because I took apart the words, is the least self-conscious text I have ever written. I never even expected to read it myself. That quality in it became very interesting to me, and I chose to present it completely in chronological order, and not to edit it at all, even though there are things in it that are slightly embarrassing to me, but I decided not to take them out because it had this very literal quality to me.
F.Z.: What about future projects?
S.R..: The projects I’m planning next are also in the area of social architecture. I’m working to create two linked organisations, an open-source record label and a political lobbying group on the subject of copyright and intellectual property. Like some of my recent projects, these grew out of meditations on the meanings and implications of the word free, and out of a study of gift economies and how they function. It seemed important at this time to work on projects which will operate primarily outside of the art world, in part in order to clarify the way in which the social architectures or organisations themselves can be a kind of art form.
F.Z.: What would you consider as the most important driving force in all your activities? Are you thrilled by exploring the possibilities of the context you work in, or is it the social moment in it, the fact that you meet a lots of people?
S.R..: Well, there are a lot of things, of course. For instance, I love to learn how to do things. I think it keeps my work changing, so now I have to learn how political organisations are structured, how record labels run, how you make records: I have been researching the whole area of the music world, what the networks are… Doing things I do is both difficult and not difficult. They certainly do require an enormous amount of work and resistance, of course. In a way, buying your way into a biennial is a sort of ridiculous and certainly vulnerable thing to do. You’re going to expect to be criticised … so when I was bidding, I went through all kinds of emotions and feelings that were interesting to recognise. On the positive side, if you do anything interesting, then some people will just like it.
F.Z.: Thank you!
Franciska Zólyom, November 2002
Updates on recent activities of Sal Randolph can be found at http://www.highlala.com
1] Sal Randolph studied biological anthropology at Harvard University, then worked in a high technology company, subsequently returning to school to study poetry. Lived for a while in Provincetown (MA), where she exhibited for the first time in a gallery, initiating mostly unprofitable projects. Her work gained broader publicity in 2001 when she started free words, followed by free biennial and free manifesta in 2002.
2] The show took place in Frankfurt am Main from 24 May through 25 August 2002.
3] Büchel’s participation in this year’s Manifesta consisted in auctioning his invitation to the show on Ebay . While he named his work Invite yourself, Free Manifesta turned this claim into Everyone is invited
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