Flight Pattern 5 Middle East: Joshua Simon
It all began with a cappuccino bought with every last coin from the pocket of Joshua’s khaki shorts. Liat was in Tel Aviv last summer co-curating a new media art festival, continuing her video archive research, and Flight Pattern-ing with Joshua Simon, who, on account of his invincible joy, wore his clothes that day like a new paper doll. He and Liat walked together to the Library Bar in the Norman Hotel, the only place serving drinks in Tel Aviv at 11:30 am on a Monday. The bar’s luxurious chairs had pearl-colored upholstery that gave off the glow of some words being more important than other words. Joshua had just acquired a copy of The Psychic Soviet and Other Works by Ian F. Svenonius, just out from Drag City Press, and was toting it in his most prized tote, printed with a bright blue whale. The whale, graphic mascot of MoBY (Museums of Bat Yam) (Get it?), wore its joy like an invincible coin. Liat and Joshua settled in beneath a vitrined violin that artist Sigalit Landau had sunken in the Dead Sea. The violin wore its salt like a fur coat. It was sunny outside, of course. The light poured in as morning met afternoon, and three rounds of Moscow Mules felt comparably communist to tequila inside the moment.
TO PARANOIA: toast #1, moscow mule
Joshua Simon: Okay, so I think being paranoid is pretty much a reasonable thing. You are basically saying that there is other, higher-level knowledge that you have no access to. In the show Recoco – which stands for Resignation, Conspiracy, and Corruption – the idea was that everything you know about the world comes from representations, and we are living in regimes of representatives. Both systems – representations and representatives – designate very specific, passive places. There is a lot of tension between these two passivities – it’s kind of like two magnets resisting each other, creating a hyperactivity that is conspiracy theories, which is a hyperactive behavior of political passivity. People are trying to speculate all the time: where are things going? The paranoid at least knows he should expect the worst. The problem with paranoia is it’s narcissistic side, where you think you have the code to the way the world works. That’s what makes you so compulsive, because this code goes through you.
LB: Was that the idea in the Iran show – the paranoid, narcissistic idea that the state of Israel has about Iran, and that it has the key?
JS: Definitely – in Israel the state budget is usually decided in December. The military comes up with threats of war around the Jewish holidays (in September or October) to ever increase its oversized budget. They get a lot of exposure because of the special weekend editions of the newspapers. But at time, the scenarios were being steadily transmitted to the media already in March. These are patterns that, because I worked in the newspaper business for eight years, I read a bit differently – in a paranoid way, or a conspirative way. We did the show then. The government was hyping this threat a lot. They do suffer from delusional behavior – Netanyahu, who was the Prime Minister, and Ehud Barak, who was the Minister of Defense — they have grander issues and pathologies, and they do have paranoia. This is not just the psychology of a person; it is a systematic thing. This has to do with calculating risks.
LB: With the Iran show, were you expecting to create paranoia with the actual art itself?
JS: I went on TV – I was invited to one of these daytime TV shows – and I thought, what should I do? Should I shrug my shoulders and be this kind of art person who doesn’t have TV lingo? I decided, no! I just sat there, and no matter what the host asked me, I said: “Look, there is going to be a war with Iran. You are going to die, ” and then I pointed at the other host, “and you are going to die, ” and I pointed to the cameraman, “and you cameraman are going to die,” and I pointed at the actual camera and I said, “and you the viewer are going to die.”
LB: How did they react?
JS: You know they liked it. They mentioned Don Draper because of how my hair was done or something.
LB: Do you think art can be the marketplace for paranoia?
JS: It definitely is experienced that way by the broad public. I would claim that for the average person, her basic sentiment towards art is being offended by it. Because there is no art education! The broad public has no access to art. Working in an art institution we think about this. Who is our audience – is it just rich collectors? No. We have to produce our public. And this relates exactly to the museum as an institution of modern democracy.
LB: So paranoia can come about when there is a difference in access to knowledge. Are you saying that when you don’t have access to knowledge about art, that also creates paranoia?
JS: So maybe we add another term – metanoia. Paranoia is knowledge from a higher level – a paranoid walks down the street and thinks that someone else is watching. Metanoia would be identifying yourself as that someone who is watching. So it would be, me walking on the street with the pathology of pretending to be a secret agent and monitoring the street. So maybe the artist is metanoid, and the viewer is paranoid. The viewer would feel like the artist made up all these things just to mock them.
LB: Is it true that the US embassy ended up being scared of the Iran show?
JS: Yes, basically we had this tube that imitated a missile installed on the rooftop, aiming at the beachfront of Tel Aviv. That area has a big compound for the US Embassy. We were approached by the police first. They came, saw it was nothing. They said, “the people in the offices feel uncomfortable that it’s pointing at them, so if you could just tilt it a bit to the left…?” We said OK. Then every few days they would harass the people in the gallery.
So one day, one of the guys in the gallery is wearing a T-shirt that says, “I shot the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy.” in Hebrew. And then, buzzer, buzzer, buzzer, knocks on the door – he goes downstairs, and there are these three huge special operations policemen with a radio. They say, “We heard there is a problem here.” Then the policeman looks at the T-shirt – in Hebrew, it’s not really “I shot the sheriff,” it’s literally “I shot the head of the police” – and he says, “What’s the shirt?” The guy says, “It’s a joke.”
They go upstairs to the roof. The three policemen look around, bang on the tube that is supposed to be a missile and see it’s nothing. The policeman takes the radio and says, “It’s nothing.” And then there is a pause, he listens to the radio, and replies: “Ah no, the T-shirt? It’s just a joke.” And the guy with the T-shirt is like, what is going on here? How do they see my T-shirt? Do they have snipers?
LB: That could make him paranoid! That’s a big success – that the show could instill paranoia not just in people, but in a state. You know, I’m thinking about how paranoia is about meaning-making. At it’s very base, paranoia is about taking a series of facts from the world, and trying to weave a story from them. And meaning-making – people could also say that is the business of art.
JS: Yeah, it’s crucial the role of the viewer. Like quantum physics, the experiment depends on the point of view of the viewer. You could have an assassination that is really an execution, but we all play the role of being the people who believe it is an assassination. All the time we validate things to be one thing and not another. We have a huge role in this.
LB: One of the basic fundamental way you know you’re schizophrenic is that you believe the TV is talking to you. Now you have your Facebook wall, which actually is talking to you. Your news source is talking right to you – this obsession with interactive art, a lot of it is about the self, like the narcissism you were discussing in the beginning.
JS: I think it also reduces the self to an actor in a network, so we’re automatons. The more focused, targeted content you get, the less you are. You turn from this ‘blue ocean,’ as they call it in this innovators lingo, which is a limitless resource because you can be interested in anything. Once it’s actually materialized, then the more debundling that happens – like you don’t care about sports, you don’t care about outer space, the only thing you care about is celebrities – then you get only that content. You become a ‘red ocean,’ meaning you have nothing to give. You have become shrunken into this automaton that is already foreseeable, fully characterized. So there is nothing to speculate on for you in the economy. This stage will have its end very soon, because we are shrinking. Subjectivity is shrinking.
LB: The ‘red ocean’ talk is very apt considering how close we are to the Red Sea.
TO SHOPPING: toast #2, moscow mule
LB: This toast is for the quote from your Goods show: “Every artwork begins with shopping.”
JS: Most people practice viewing objects in shopping. That’s the most common form of display that we know. A certain amount of people also go to museums where things are also displayed. The question is: is there a difference between the museum store and the museum gallery? How far are the conditions of viewing from each other? When I say that every artwork begins with shopping, I mean that, before it’s an artwork, it’s already a commodity. There’s not one thing that comes to the world other than as a commodity. They monetize space, they monetize social and family relations, they commodify emotions. This is the world we live in.
LB: The thing that sticks out most to me from the Goods show is the Speed Stick Rainbow, and the particular smell of what it’s like to walk down the deodorant aisle – it brings together the artwork and the shopping.
JS: The interesting thing about that Speed Stick piece by Christopher Chiappa – and a lot of works in Goods – is that is has a corporeal presence: somatic, bodily in scale, it sweats, and it goes in your armpit. This piece that looks like a 3D rendering of a photoshopped image relates immediately back to our somatic experience. It is a truism that every artwork begins with shopping. When do we shop? What are the surpluses that we absorb? One example of how we compensate is obesity – people absorb surpluses to the point that it endangers their lives. It’s an epidemic that has to do with the fact that our subjectivity revolves around shopping. To make it less judgemental, I call it ‘absorption of production surpluses,’ more often than ‘shopping.’ The absorption of surpluses of production is our function in this economy.
LB: You as a curator have to deal with shopping, too. You must go shopping around for new work.
JS: You know, the museum is the institution that has a monopoly on profiting not only from the work it’s showing, but also from the work it’s not showing. This is unlike a commercial gallery, which can only profit from the work it’s showing – the gallery chooses that work because it speculates there’s a market for it. But with a museum, it’s different. The museum has a history based on judgement – but, even if I do nothing as a museum curator, no studio visits, nothing, by the fact that I work for the museum, I have the ability to extract profit (not monetary, but symbolic) from the value of the artworks that I don’t show. This is what Gregory Sholette calls “dark matter.” For this reason, I see our job as an infrastructure to serve this whole community, as we enjoy the value it generates even if we do not exhibit it.
As for myself as a curator, I find it less interesting to only consider new work done especially for the show. Although it is of course an involving and exciting process, I wouldn’t mind showing the same work time and time again – just make it different in the way it is articulated. That would be an extreme measure. The gesture we have seen of artists treating the things they make as just stuff – just clutter – has been quite prominent in recent years. You see it in the new magazine Art Handler – the first clip you see on their website is someone demolishing an installation in the Armory show. We ask ourselves all the time: why make new work? And this is why Bartleby the Scrivener is so popular with our generation: because it has to do with someone who is saying, “I prefer not to.” These are questions of circulation and withdrawal that are extremely present today with cultural boycotts and sticking to your Nokia dumbphone like I do – and this is the only choice we have somehow, to choose not to, to be this kind of Bartleby.
LB: A lot of people would say that actually you can’t not go shopping. You have no choice to be Bartleby. The only thing you can do is to spam the system by saying, I like every single thing. You can only obfuscate.
JS: That would be the accelerationist version. Hannah Arendt would say that would bring you to self-deceit. At a certain point you would ask yourself, why am I still doing this? You think it’s sabotage, but you are just like anyone else. I would say it’s not premeditated, the fact that we are negotiating this circulation and withdrawal. It’s a pathology – it’s a generational thing. Think of veganism: it is an eating disorder that is symptomatic to the fact that we have no agency in this world. None of our actions have any effect. Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and the 2008 US presidential elections are two examples of this – things happen but nothing changes. And so you become this kid who cannot control anything in his life other than saying to mom and dad: Grapefruit, no meat!
LB: As a curator, do you think you have agency?
JS: We work in models. The model is on the scale of an exhibition in that there is a duration, a spatial scale, a budgetary scale, and a scale of what can happen in it – because it is quite controlled, it’s not totally out there in the world. What we do is a negotiation between the concrete and the abstract. There is a concept that is made out of material stuff. Within the tradition of thought of dialectical materialism, you make these actions that are in the service of a concept, and so there is a concreteness and an abstraction that are always in relation to one another. That is what an exhibition can do. On the one hand it sounds like it can make revolutions. On some level, it’s the opposite: it’s a practice, like you would play the recorder. You practice it.
LB: All the talk about shopping makes me think of the shopping that happens in a lot of art spaces now, which is not the shopping where you exchange money, but where exchange the selfie. You have these pieces of art that are made specifically so that you can stand next to them and take a selfie. That is the commodity that you end up distributing and performing on all your networks.
JS: A selfie is a good example in which you are both the worker and the commodity. This of course compels me to say that performing the self in social networks is a form of labor – a specific form of labor that has precedence in industrial modes of production, namely Soviet Shock work. It’s sort of an overproduction of the self, swiping your punch card on Foursquare, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – and the business models for all these businesses are still questionable. Once we become the garbage bins for all these targeted ads, I see different scenarios. To give the example to veganism again, in a dialectical way we are paving the way for more species to be enfranchised. Tel Aviv has many cats and dogs. Why can’t they go into debt? I mean, not so long ago, a woman couldn’t take a loan. So this enfranchisement, which is supposed to be this inclusive, liberal thing, ends up giving more species access to the market.
LB: …and access to debt. What would it look like if cats and dogs could go into debt?
JS: They will default, don’t worry.
TO PRODUCTION VALUE: toast #3, moscow mule
JS: Our shows are low-tech, no?
LB: They feel pretty DIY. And you have this term, the un-readymade. Because the readymade came from DIY and the un-readymade is a reaction against that. In the big, systemic picture, there is this difference between art that has a high production value and is no longer made by the artist – these are the Jeff Koons, the Ai Weiweis – verses the art where you say, “Now, you artist, you come here from where you live, which is many thousand miles away, and you make your art in my museum.”
JS: So specifically with ARKPARKCRAFTRAFTCLINICCLUBPUB, the solo show of Francesco Finizio – an artist who came from many miles away — it has to do with the presence of the artist. He built these wormholes – these cat doors in Pussy Palace. He would get down on all fours, and put down newspapers and cat food (you can smell it!). It’s an elaborate trap that he built. I think the whole museum is informed by an aesthetic that is very Israeli – like the essay, The Poverty of Material as Quality in Israeli Art – it’s a famous essay from ’86. It has to do with erasure, with self-creation. You have plywood. You need a wall? You make a wall. This is simplicity.
LB: It doesn’t seem only Israeli to me. Part of what low-production value art gives you is that you’re not just seeing the art, you’re also seeing the identity of the artist. The autonomy and the identity of the artists is the last remaining thing that you can commodify.
JS: That is Robinson Crusoe basically – the novel of the maker. I think DIY is a different world, where you don’t create from nothing – you don’t simply make do. You have a strict system of choice of what not to incorporate. You’re more like McGuyver.
LB: Do you think that low production value is a reaction against everything being able to be so finished and shiny now?
JS: It’s also a beaten, self-defeating gesture a lot of the time. If what you are trying to perform is your creativity, then you are bound to fail, and not a successful failure. Successfully proving your creativity is a failed project – because today it’s not obvious that creativity is a quality that has good effects or repercussions. You might be impoverishing yourself with your creativity. You might be defeating yourself with your creativity. We see it with gentrification – it’s how we see our creativity biting our ass, time and time again. You are irrigating and nurturing a ground that is only real estate. In cities that do have public housing, creativity can mean other things. But in our cities, creativity beats us time and time again.
LB: But is that unique to creativity?
JS: Not at all. No – it’s unique to a social order in which space has been totally monetized. But today we already assume that this is part of art making itself to some extent – that the art world is all about commodifying things from the world. It’s not that! And it wasn’t that when they were doing the readymade, even. But now we read the readymade after everything has become real estate – after mortgages and so on. So of course you would see an artist taking something from the world and valorizing it as a thing to look at in and of itself as a form of commodification. But it’s not necessarily that.
LB: Do you think that artwork with DIY aesthetic is able to highlight these points more than art with high production value – more than art that is shiny?
JS: I like shiny art also. I never thought of myself as someone engaged with DIY aesthetics to be honest. Shine can do the same thing. Shiny surfaces reject the human – the human is a problem for them. You know, the iPhone touchscreen – you see your body fat on the screen all the time: your fingerprints! So immediately you feel fat on your face. I mean, I can now feel my nose and my glasses because I’m talking about this. So you buy this facial scrub or something. The more you use touchscreens, the more you are confronted with your body fat.
LB: I think the more you use shiny things that are perfect – that feel like they came from a digital birth, untouched by humans – the more you feel like the shine is right and that you are flawed. And that’s what DIY-aesthetics offer in a sense. It’s almost redemptive. It says, the flaws can also make something.
JS: Yes, but also looking at the shiny surfaces and your presence in them is something you can learn from. I mean, this is what’s called ‘reflection’. It’s a question of how you articulate it.
Joshua Simon is the Director and Chief Curator of MoBY – Museums of Bat Yam, Israel. He is a cofounding editor of the literary journal Maayan, of the film journal Maarvon (Western), and of The New & Bad Art Magazine, all published in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Simon is a fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, New York. His book Neomaterialism was published in 2013 by Sternberg Press, Berlin. He recently edited the monograph Ruti Sela: For the Record (Archive Books, 2015) following the exhibition he curated of the artist’s works at MoBY and at Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. Recent exhibitions include Factory Fetish (co-curated together with Liang Luscombe) at Westspace, Melbourne, 2015; and the retrospective Roee Rosen: Group Exhibition (co-curated together with Gilad Melzer) at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2016. Simon is currently working on a book titled Israel-Palestine: The Great Syrian-African Rift.
FLIGHT PATTERN is an interview series that traces the curiosities and affinities of Liat Berdugo (San Francisco/Tel Aviv) and Maggie Ginestra (Philadelphia). They invite curators to sit over a flight of tequila, making three toasts. The toasts are three take-offs, and o where will we land?