Somewhere Specific in Mind.
A Conversation Between Liam Gillick and Suzanne Cotter.

This is an edited version of a conversation that took place at The Serralves Museum Of Contemporary Art, Porto, 
On 9 April 2016.

Liam Gillick (LG): As a student in the 1980s I
 used to say that I was more interested in exhibitions than single artworks, and this was quite a difficult thing to deal with in the educational environment at that time. Most of the teaching was geared towards assessing the artwork alone. What is its usefulness 
or its relationship to what you have already done 
and others have done. The idea of the exhibition as
 a form was a problem that could not be subjected to this comparative analysis in art schools then. I have always been interested in the exhibition as a form 
and a place of production. That’s why I was so happy with your invitation to make a year long exhibition that unfolds in stages.

This is the first exhibition where I’ve removed and clarified so many things; it is more about what’s not there than what’s there. Each stage gives me the opportunity to focus on an individual work that has had a great significance within my practice but is maybe not so well known. I had the opportunity to use the frame of the Museum and this special architecture by Álvaro Siza, to give some gravity, or weight, to things that could not be realized before or were secondary components, initially intended to operate in the background. I’m making a specific use of this place as a museum to elevate some things and am relying strongly upon the institutional and architectural frame to provide backup and focus.

Suzanne Cotter (SC): You have talked about the way in which your practice is based on an interest in the contingent. To take a concrete example, I asked you about the work that constitutes the second moment of this year long exhibition AC/DC Joy Division House Model of a Social Centre for Teenagers for Milan 1993 (Porto) (2016). When you presented it here you said you were thinking about the contingencies of this particular space, the light, the window in the back, its circulation and place within the Museum. But does that make this work dependent on always being seen in this space?
LG: Every work in this exhibition was originally conceived with somewhere specific in mind. For example, the second stage of the exhibition is centred on a large scale model of a building that I wanted to build in Milan in 1993. The initial concept was my response to an invitation to make a public artwork
as part of a new urban development. I think they 
were hoping that I would do something abstract, but 
I knew immediately that what was required was a
 new framework, in this case a social centre for young people. The context required something literally concrete and functional. The project never happened. There was absolutely no interest in a functional social space as an artwork. The final structure that we see in the museum is a large scale maquette that turns up the volume and the importance of this work in my history.

I wanted to give it a certain weight. I wanted to make it clear to people that at one time there was an important project that was not possible. It only becomes possible to represent it now as an absence. The work represents something that never got built, but still weighs heavily on my mind and affected my subsequent actions.

I never proposed or built any architecture after this work. Instead I turned to issues such as renovation, recuperation and development. The work appears now as a reminder from the past, of something that did not happen but led to a fundamental development in my work. I decided, around this time, never to build a house for myself either, because, even though I want to build a house, I want the authority of architecture, 
I decided around this point in time I would never do that, because if I did I would lose the ‘problem of art’. If you consider the most interesting work of Vito Acconci or Dennis Oppenheim I would argue it comes prior to them being lured into the sexy world of architecture as practice. In 1993 I said to myself  ‘I will never build a house’. So I gave up something. Art is about giving up things, not as a sacrifice, but literally just giving up on some things. You must give up some potential pleasures, securities or authorities in life.

Importantly everything in this exhibition over the whole year has some kind of ethical component, the museum visitors don’t have to think about it but they will see an artist revealing certain limits of practice. Some works are contingent, some are dependent
on other contexts, some are displaced solutions to problems. I want to bring these things out now and move them to the central place in the work that they have always had in my mind.

SC: We talked about how this model of a building encapsulates several defining characteristics within your practice. One being the tension between a functioning and non-functioning structure, two, the idea of structure as a place of concentration, in this case the concentration of people, which relates to your subsequent works dealing with the discussion platforms and screens, places of assembly, so to speak. And the third element is the use of text.
LG: In this case all of those things are present.
 To focus on this specific work a little longer, the
original proposal was not a finished structure, it was a concrete shell. It would have to be completed by other people. The texts on the façade were a provocation and the structure was a proposal. It was like a gift
that had not been asked for. An incomplete gift.
 In fact, this has become a model within advanced architecture, especially when dealing with cultures within emerging or developing economies, where you have a growing population that requires housing.
 There is a phenomenon of building half-finished structures that can then be finished by others. This was something I was thinking about at the time. You are designating a space that is available for other people to complete, you are not determining what they do.

A second important component to this work is the assertion of the artist as someone who retains an aesthetic consciousness that existed prior to their involvement in contemporary art. By referring to
these two bands [AC/DC and Joy Division], I wanted to remind myself, even at that point, at the age of twenty-nine [when the proposal was first developed] that I had an aesthetic consciousness prior to my art education. Like most young (sub)urban people I had a very keen sensibility around the reading of semiotics and aesthetics. This existed prior to my thinking about contemporary art and I wanted to point towards this in the work. The façades would seed a space to be filled with other arguments from popular culture.

I also knew that the choice of texts for the building would create a reaction. The choices were unacceptable. An unresolvable combination of male egos. Crotch-thrusting rock on one hand and self- conscious melancholy on the other. Two maybe problematic sides of male vanity combined together that should and would, were this built today, be crossed out and erased or challenged, or battled over. So that’s the written component of the work.

SC: An architect asked me whether the design
for this particular structure was based on or had a specific artistic, architectural or historical reference. Or is it intended more as a generic of idea of modernist architecture?
LG: When I left art school, I didn’t know what to do. So I used to design buildings every day. At that time 
I did a lot of things that I termed ‘parallel activities’.
 It was my way of making art without the problem of thinking about art references or seeking ways to fit into a discourse. So in the late 1980s I would work like an architect as a parallel activity. I would get up in the morning and I would do drawings of buildings. The difference between me and an actual architect was that I might draw one or two hundred buildings a day. The whole point was to inhabit a parallel world. So by the time I conceived of the AC/DC Joy Division House [Model of a Social Centre for Teenagers for Milan 1993 (Porto)], I had already designed maybe two thousand buildings. So there were no clear references here as I had already developed a vocabulary of my own rooted in functional modernism. Yet this vocabulary was also connected to some postmodernism. Aldo Rossi and others were important reference points. And earlier work that was deeply connected to a form of Mediterranean modernism, a link to North African architecture and...

SC: Le Corbusier...
LG: Yes, but in the case of this work the Aldo Rossi element is the tiny windows, and the lack of openness — certainly if you think of his early work and the San Cataldo Cemetery. My building also uses a disguised entrance guarded by an L-shaped wall. A semi-public, semi-private zone.

SC: Just to go back for an instant to the question of context and contingency. The first stage of the exhibition comprised one work, standing alone in a large room, Factories in the Snow, that consists of a Disklavier piano programmed to play a recording of you attempting to recall the song which is associated with the beginning of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, Grândola, Vila Morena. The piano stands alone and we hear you attempting to remember the song while black snow falls from above from a snow machine. But of course when you made that work in 2007 you produced it for a specific context, which was the exhibition ‘Il Tempo del Postino’ in Manchester, which was an exhibition as theatre, for
 a captive audience. Here in Porto people responded 
to the work in a very particular way for those who could actually remember, or understand, or perceive
a level of recognition with the sonorous dimension of the work, the melody of the song. Here, with Model of a Social Centre for Teenagers for Milan 1993 (Porto), you have talked about the idea of social housing, or the idea of improvised situations and the application
of architecture to those situations. This has a very strong resonance at a time of massive refugee crisis
in the world, but also historically in Portugal at the
time of the Revolution with the Serviço Ambulatório
de Apoio Local (SAAL) [Local Ambulatory Support Service] project, where the question of public housing was an emergency. So for people here in Portugal, they are viewing and experiencing these works with a very different set of references and responding to them in those terms... 
LG: Although I’ve lived in America for twenty years,
 I come from Europe. As someone born in Britain I am aware that following Thatcher, we were far ahead of the rest of Europe in terms of breaking down civil society and destroying social life. A lot of the intentions behind this work were warnings, to be honest, because that area of redevelopment in Milan was a public-private partnership. This was for an area of new housing that was intended to get beyond the problem of public housing and move to a new level of postmodern consciousness, both aesthetically and politically. I wanted to drop a problem into the middle of this urban rethinking that would be a warning from somewhere else. Moving to 2016, it no longer matters where you are from or if you have a memory of a specific moment of social change. The ideas behind the work engage with common questions around how social life has been organized under a neoliberal system — both structurally and aesthetically. That’s what my work from the outset has been addressing.

In the mid-1990s I started to say to Philippe Parreno, ‘I’m a passenger, not a customer’, because in Britain they had already changed everyone into a client in
the process of privatization. They had begun to thank the ‘customers’ for being on the bus. This battle over language is something that’s been part of my work ever since. I have been investigating the way in which modes of production or modes of practice have shifted during the period where everyone has been forced to become a client. We are no longer in a ‘consumer society’ because economic iniquity is so universalized, but in this process everyone has become a customer or a client of their own disenfranchisement.

This exhibition at Serralves started with Factories in the Snow. A work that reveals the second important foundational aspect of my work. It is a structure that plays with time without using traditional time-based media such as film or video. The work was originally intended to be triggered only when something was going wrong during the original Manchester project. The work functioned as a negative thing, 
only becoming fully realized in the gaps between the other artist’s performances. I was looking for the right music to play from memory and use as a MIDI file for the Disklavier. I didn’t want anything too strident or immediately recognisable by a Manchester audience — but a piece of music that had a certain beauty and resonance. The music also had to make an associative reference to the radical story of Manchester’s socialist past. I remembered watching scenes from Portugal as a ten year old — when people still gathered to watch one of two nightly news programs on British TV.

So I tried to play Grândola, Vila Morena for Manchester. I tried over and over again to remember the melody and cheated a little towards the end by listening to
the song again. The idea was that if the audience ever got to the point where they could hear the melody in full then everything in the theatre must have gone very wrong and something better might start. I was a little cynical about the whole idea of an exhibition as opera or theatre so I was hoping that maybe if everything went wrong people would ‘feel’ the potential of the music, leave the theatre and take to the streets.

In Porto the work had a completely different ambience. Now at the centre of everything, standing alone in a large room the piano and the snow became a rather poignant expression of lost promise and human limits. Here the work was more about time, loss, and desire. It is also important to mention that this work belongs to Philippe Parreno — I gave it to him and he now uses the piano as a trigger for many of his exhibitions. He will have an exhibition following mine at Serralves that might include the same piano. There is something here about collaboration but not in a traditional sense. What Philippe and I have been involved in is a series of exchanges and collisions.

SC: You have also worked with other artists. You and Lawrence Weiner have been friends for three decades. You have said there’s some sort of artistic conversation going on, but you have also talked about the idea of yearning, in relation to conceptual and minimal art. Robert Barry, as well, is another artist you’ve mentioned a lot.
LG: Maybe it’s not only about art, but other things. As a young artist when I looked at photos of early modernist housing projects in Rotterdam, or work by Robert Barry such as All the things I know... I had the feeling that these gestures could not be re-enacted but still left an important absence. They had been destroyed by excess and loss. In the case 
of international modernism, it was destroyed by Fascism and Stalinism, and in the case of developed conceptual art it was attacked by globalization, neo-liberalism and a corruption of post-modernism. 
In common with many of my generation it was quite painful to look at these things as markers of what had been lost or could not be sustained. This sounds like a romantic idea, but it’s not simple pain. These idealized earlier structures create a yearning, and you can see this yearning in my work. The materials I used for the original maquette of the Model of a Social Centre
for Teenagers for Milan 1993 (Porto) were the only ‘honest’ materials that I had to hand. Cardboard and paper and contemporary popular music. These were the only elements I could deploy as a way to come close to those earlier feelings without being dishonest. You can see that compared to Lawrence Weiner, who always posits objects in relation to objects in relation to human beings in an endlessly fascinating way, none of the song titles I used in this work are objects, they’re all attitudes or urgencies, flows, desires, transmissions, love, atmospheres, overdoses, pleasures. They’re all about yearning. Yearning and a process of endless becoming. It was with this early work that I realized that I wasn’t completely alone;
that this yearning was actually about becoming in
a philosophical sense. This focus on projection and states of becoming — of coming into being — became central to the work. The work deviates here wildly from Lawrence’s. He is interested in simultaneous realities.

I am involved in processes of projection, compromise, renovation and discourse, with one key question being ‘Should the future help the past?’. He thinks I am bound up in sociology. Maybe he is correct.

SC: Does that have a relationship with your writings and reflections on the idea of the near future? The recent past and the near future?
LG: This is something I write about in the book Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since
1820 (Columbia University Press, 2016). The significant political shifts in my adult life have been dominated by moments of unification, insurgency or fragmentation. But for Lawrence and others I would still argue that 1968 has an enduring resonance. The moments of change I have witnessed have had only a confusing effect on art. They lack the negative potential of 1968. People think
of 1968 as a time of revolution and uprising, but what they forget sometimes is that the words that were written on the walls were not positive; they were negative, they were self-lacerating and self-critical. Like many others Lawrence Weiner made a radical turn as an artist in 1968. It is when he wrote his statement of intent:

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated.
3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

I would argue that this statement is a negative rupture in the spirit of 1968’s negative potential. In some ways he is saying I will not paint anymore, I can’t produce objects anymore; you, the viewer or user of the work have to take responsibility along with me. From that point on he is doomed, or free, depending on how you look at it, to take any material relationship in the world and produce a new structure. When you create a protective umbrella under which to nominate things and combine them, you propose a very particular positive-negative set of possibilities. You remove something and add something. It is not about disappearance or nothing it is about adding and subtracting.

When I first met Lawrence in the 1980s, it was less than twenty years since 1968. We are now thirty years away from 1987. There were an enormous series of changes and shifts in art between 1968 and 1987. However between 1987 and 2016, the changes
 have been more granular and broken up, and very importantly these shifts have been connected to questions of identity...

SC: ... and technology.
LG: Technology, and orientation, not solely in terms of sexual or gender orientation, but the way these developments connect with a reassessment of where ‘you’ are standing and where ‘you’ are looking. In light of this, for the contemporary artist the question is ‘what are you filtering?’. The filter is a technological aspect of perspective and point of view. The filter affects, corrupts and improves the point of view. You can finally see that in my work here, because I am only exhibiting very focused moments. Industry and Intelligence is really about the emergence of the contemporary artist as a figure. Why has this persona been so enduring? Before 1968 the creative outsider might have been a poet or rock musician or filmmaker. How is it that the contemporary artist acquired a new set of permissions in society to operate both inside and outside simultaneously? Along with Dave Beech I would argue that art is the last zone of potential that does not operate under capitalist rules when considering who controls the means of production. This is because art is produced under specific conditions and exchanged under precise terms. I am interested in production not consumption. Most focus upon the implicated role
of contemporary art in developed neo-liberal global capitalism looks at moments of reception in a pseudo- ethical way — and does not examine the conditions of production in the way Beech does in his extraordinary book.1.

SC: Your first prominent use of text in a realized artwork doesn’t happen until around 2005/06, in an exhibition at the Esther Schipper gallery in Berlin. The text was ‘The state itself becomes a super whatnot’. This use of wall texts as objects has been liberated in more recent works to hang or float in space. There is also your critical writing, which is extremely important and indeed a fundamental part of your work.
LG: I feel as if I am cheating sometimes when I
 use text in the gallery. Like using evocative classical music in a video. But all artists cheat, in a sense. Art is limited. That’s why I find it so fascinating, walking around the museum, you already see a lack, you see things missing everywhere. Everything is incomplete. Art leaves enormous spaces. As for critical writing, I never really wrote until I learnt to type. I learnt to type, because I’m left-handed, and as a child I didn’t want to look like an idiot when I was writing — left handed people tend to crab their hands around the pen so they can read what they just wrote. I am old enough that when I wrote like President Obama does the teacher would hit me around the head. So I tried to write straight, but it hurt and put me off writing. When I finally learnt to type, I could suddenly write as fast as I could think without pain. For me, writing is thinking.
I start writing and thoughts come from the ends of my fingers onto the screen. It’s got no discipline or order, in a way which is what irritates some academics.

SC: It’s still a form, like thinking with materials.
LG: I think that most writers and artists know that you use different parts of your brain when writing and looking. For me it’s a bit like people who take different drugs at the same time. Growing up in the suburbs I knew a lot of people who could balance out their lives by mixing drugs — or at least they thought they could. They would take one thing to get high and another thing to calm down again. First up then down. The main aim seemed to be finding a nice balance — a kind of super normal awareness. When I think of seeing or looking in relation to writing I really seek a similar kind of balance. Right now I haven’t written anything for a couple of weeks, and I’m starting to lose focus. We were sitting in a restaurant earlier and I realized everything was out of focus, people’s heads were moving in a strange way, everything was becoming too visual. When I begin to write everything visual starts to settle down and compress. There is something very special about the relationship between looking and writing — it’s really a phenomenal thing — and I think it is why artists and curators often make the best writers about art. Focusing on being a critic or writer alone becomes about the act of writing and tends to diminish the visual side of the brain.

SC: You have installed a large installation in the gallery downstairs, inspired by Guy Debord’s Jeu de la guerre. When we were talking about the exhibition, you said ‘There should be more games at the museum’. What did you mean by that?
LG: I meant it. But to be more clear, I am interested in game playing as a different occupation of time. To backtrack a little: the first part of this whole exhibition, with the piano and black snow was really about time and collective recognition as a trigger. The work sets up the conditions for something to change. The second part of the exhibition, the social centre, is about recognizing that it’s maybe too late to do something, or it’s too early to deploy something. That work is
an important ethical marker in my practice. The third part of the exhibition, A Game of War (Terrain) (2016), is derived from Guy Debord’s  Jeu de la guerre. He worked on a board game that was a development of classic Kriegsspiel. His strategy game was intended to take into account insurgency, post-colonial battle grounds, street fighting and modern communication systems. It has been argued that Debord resorted to developing this game at a time when he’d lost faith in the potential of his earlier thinking. I don’t know about that, but it is clear that he was very focused on Jeu de la guerre towards the end of his life. So my version, which constitutes half of the third part of this exhibition, is about killing time.

You could argue that there is a somewhat self-regarding male self-consciousness at work in this whole year
long project. When I talk about game playing I am interested in its role in denying time, battling against time, wasting time, or using up time. I find sophisticated game playing an increasingly interesting thing to think about. Museums as institutions are still based on other forms of killing time, to do with reflection, education, understanding, enlightenment, and maybe just going for a walk. Going for a long slow walk in a rather grand context. You go for a walk around a museum and you get enlightened and you have some experiences and time is eaten away. Game playing is a very particular way of killing time that gains new resonance when enacted in a museum.

One of my interests in game playing is connected to reclaiming it away from the ambience of the start-up business model. The world of Google and Facebook and internet start-ups stole game playing. Before that they stole the idea of creativity and innovation. They stole lots of creative terminology, but all in order to
sell advertising in the end. In the mid-1990s it became impossible for me to play table tennis, because it had become the signifier of enforced leisure in the context of new technology. This is why both Rirkrit [Tiravanija] and I have used table tennis in our work. One of my most important works of the 1990s is a glitter covered tennis table with no net and a set of texts about new models of projection. It is a critique of the take over of free time. I still see game playing as a particular form of resistance connected to class and social connectivity.

SC: In our conversation you used the terms ‘direct subject’ and ‘assertively relative’. Could you expand on what you mean by them?
LG: My art practice is conditional, contingent and contextual. You have to take into account the critical surroundings in order to appreciate the work. That’s true for many artists and many people in life, but it’s particularly strong in my case. There’s an assertive weakness in my work, a contingency and relativism that has been activated and exploited. This is the legacy of a certain postmodern awareness that requires a lot of maintenance. To remain relative and contingent requires maintaining a profound semiotic consciousness. If you look at a lot of my work, very few things are fundamental. The platform works are derived from canopies and false ceilings, the screens, are secondary structures dependent upon context. These formal structures work with the language of renovation, recuperation and de-historicization. They do not function without an awareness of background and semiotic surroundings. They have no function without that. From the beginning I wanted to find a language that I could deploy that would have a concrete relationship with our socio-political surroundings. What are the aesthetics of our managed environment? My work is an exposure of these things, not a celebration. There is humour but not much irony in this gesture.

My work is not an ironic response to the failure of modernism; it’s much more influenced by the suburbs of England where I grew up. My work has got a lack of irony in the same way that J. G. Ballard’s writing has
 a lack of irony. Characters in J. G. Ballard books often come across as thin, empty and undeveloped. Maybe that’s because they were conceived in a kitchen in
the suburbs of England. My arguments at art school often came down to the question of reality and the real in relation to the production of art. I was often asked ‘What do you really think about this work?’, and I would always say ‘Well, what I really think is contingent and it depends on who speaks, who has permission
to speak, who has authority, who decides what’s important and not important’. And then they’d say ‘Yes, interesting; so what do you really think?’, and I’d say ‘Well, it’s contingent, it all depends, meaning is relative, art is excessively relative, it’s an infinite granulation of all meaning all the time. That’s what I really think.’ And we would just go round in circles. Sticking to that is the hardest thing to do. There is no consistency in the work but there is a kind of aesthetic that comes and goes, connected to surface and renovation, and...

SC: And structure?
LG: And structure, but the structures are not fundamental. They’re the structures that come from shop windows, soft control systems and the developed globalized built world; I am more interested in the frame than the picture. I’m the consistent element
 in the work. I seem to have found a way of creating
 an equilibrium in the work between ideas and execution, intentions and results but with my focus upon contemporary aesthetics such a balance always creates a loss within the body and brain of the artist themselves. That’s why I wrote the book about the emergence of the contemporary artist as a persona.

SC: In Industry and Intelligence you write about conditions in the early nineteenth century being ready to produce the proto-contemporary-artist. But your ideas are also about the reception of work and the encounter with individuals and the public. You have always spoken about the idea of spaces of gathering and relativity of the viewer.
LG: The image that I can use to try to explain this comes from one of the best films ever made, A Matter of Life and Death, a Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film from 1946. There’s a point in the film where a village doctor shows an American air woman his camera obscura installed at the top of his house. The film is set during the Second World War — and the two of them stand looking at a projection of reality coming from the camera obscura. The existence of the projection allows them to comment on the movements of the people in the village in a disinterested way. The camera obscura allows them to see things with immense clarity as in a history painting. I take a lot
of photographs so I can see the street on which I’m standing much more clearly later on. When I’m alone in the dark I will be able to look at the details of the scene on the computer. I didn’t really do this before the development of digital cameras which allow us to zoom in so far and scan the image. My work is distant and close at the same time, in the same way that the camera obscura is a distancing device that brings one closer to a form of reality. There’s a great moment when they have finished looking at the projection of the life of the village, they open blinds and light floods the room. When this happens they are returning to the life of the village. They have left and returned without ever leaving the room — there is a departure and a return without moving. I used to say that my work is so much better if you stand with your back to it. The experience of walking away from my work is equally important as the encounter. But it might be more accurate to say that it is about arriving and leaving without ever moving.

1. See Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism
in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics, Boston, MA: Brill, 2015 [E.N.].

© Liam Gillick 2024