Brown and RISD alumus Paul Ramirez Jonas has returned to Providence this winter as the resident artist of RISD Sculpture's Artist Projects program. For his latest project at this year's Sao Paulo biennial, he erected a kiosk that offered a working key to the museum's front door. In return, viewers had to allow the artist to make a copy of a key of their own, as well as sign a contract pledging to maintain museum guidelines such as checking their backpacks and not smoking indoors. These physical or contractual exchanges often occur in his work, literalizing the transfer of information between artist and audience. But at the same time they are predicated on a promise of freedom that only gives the public more of what they already have, rather than anything new. In his piece Broadside 1, appropriated text was presented with a microphone in a gallery, inviting viewers to read the text out loud. Do these physical acknowledgments--active speech or talisman keys--expand or just embellish our experience? The artist is now collaborating with students to create a copy center in RISD's Metcalf building. It will be on view there Tuesday, February 10.
There seems to be a "show me yours, I'll show you mine" attitude at work here, and also a nihilism in it that is different from usual attitudes toward audience participation--as if one is actively claiming a ubiquitous experience or their own anonymity.
I always used to go back and forth between work that was to be looked at and work that's built to be interacted with. Usually I was the interactor, or the participant, or the agent. The protagonist was what I used to think.
In the re-enactments?
Yes. I climb, or I fly a kite, or I re-make the first radio telescope. I kept thinking that those were a way of leading by example: "I'm just an everyday person and I'm doing this thing that really does not require any skill, and you could as well." I'm always unhappy with the participation because you cannot participate and think at the same time. It's the whole birth-of-tragedy-Nietzsche thing--you're either Dionysus and you lose yourself, or you're Apollo and you're alienated from what you're looking at, but you can reason through what you're looking at. I didn't want to make pieces where their success was predicated on people actually participating. And I increasingly started to think, because so much of my work is about failure, how can I make failure in participation part of the work? Or apathy?
Participation is often implied but unnecessary, because you know exactly what is going to happen. You've used musical automata that invite the viewer to play a missing note, but the machine doesn't stop its song and wait for you. Yet if you can hear that the note is missing, in a way you've already played it.
I had a musician friend who told me that it is actually physiological. You will hear sounds that are omitted.
So one fails by obsolescence?
There's a sort of facile participation that we see a lot in artwork where interaction means, "if we press this button something happens." But it always feels false because frankly, all these participatory pieces could be done without you pressing the button. But there is this point where people have to decide whether they are going to participate or not; and often they decide not to participate. And I thought, how can I make even that moment of deciding enough? In which that choice is when the piece happens.
The more concrete example I can give is the pieces where I present an oath, and also a setup that's amplified so you can read the oath out loud. There's the idea that when an oath is spoken out loud, that's when it takes effect. Recently Obama had to repeat the oath of taking office because he didn't say it correctly. We have some sort of faith that they actually have an effect, but only when they're spoken out loud. The funny thing about an oath is that when you see it written you've read it--you have just not read it out loud. So you almost half participated already.
If one does choose to speak, are they expected to repeat the given text?
Well the funny thing is that they can say whatever they want, so the situations are very open-ended. And I don't know if I would say they're nihilistic, but they're a bit pessimistic, I would say. I want to be an optimist. Sometimes I feel it is a culture thing, a Latin thing--this optimism-pessimism happening simultaneously.
In recent pieces you ask viewers to trade a copied key from their keychain for one from your own. In a way this is a very intimate exchange, but still everyone gets the same result. And you go around on tour giving the same one-on-one, physical exchange away to anyone in an identical manner.
With the key pieces I'm always trying to stress, especially with the piece that I just did in Sao Paulo for the biennial, that this key is a gesture that has almost no effect. It's a promise, but I cannot quite keep the promise. It's a proposition.
A promise for...
A promise of greater freedom. The people could use this key to come into the museum after hours when it was closed. But even though you enter the museum after hours, you still have to conform to the rules of the museum during regular hours.
There's novelty in being able to hold the key regardless of its use. It's a souvenir.
I think about Felix Gonzales Torres a lot, who has devised the ultimate work that is always evaporating--these stacks of paper or candy that you can take and are always being restocked. But now that the work has been relatively well received, when you leave the place where it is exhibited you see the trashcans on the street full of his work. What exactly is going on there? Now that the work is accepted, does it not work? People take because that is what's expected of them, but it has become a thoughtless interaction? Or do the candies still work because people ingest them? I know I want the physical exchange--but at the same time I don't want it to be important.
Is fiction important to your work?
We always think of the genres of fiction and non-fiction. And in film, there are fictional movies and the documentary. I'm really interested in Werner Herzog, where all the ingredients of his documentaries are non-fiction, but there's nothing documentarist about it. I want all the ingredients of my work to be factual or true in someway, but I like this idea that it all adds up to something that is not just reportage or quotes or an essay. I don't have a name for that, but in Werner Herzog I see the public figure that represents that.
I'm thinking of the suspension of disbelief. What is required for your viewers to enter into these contracts? Or perhaps, do you think that in viewing art there is already a kind of contractual exchange at work between the artist and viewer--one that you are making quite material and literal?
Not to be too idealistic but...there are limits to democracy, especially in our late-capitalist democracy. Yet I do believe in the social contract of the artwork. The artwork promises that it will be a one-on-one experience every time for each person that approaches it--the opposite of broadcasting. It retains intimacy even though you are the millionth viewer. And also, you become a member of a group once you view that artwork. I like to think that this group, the public of an artwork, does not have the same limitations that democracy has.
Can you clarify this relationship between the artwork and democracy?
This piece that we're working on at RISD right now, in an ideal situation you go to the piece and somehow it records that you saw it. And at the same time it records a list of everyone that saw that piece.
It takes a census of its audience
Like a role call--who was present in front of this piece? It's all the piece does. Then you belong to this piece, in the same way as when you become a member of something. That's why I'm into the idea that this piece can't go on forever.
The piece is over when your copy machine dies.
If it's an open ended membership it looses its meaning. But if you know that this piece will last a few years and then it will break, you know that you're part of a select few. What I want to retain is that sense of intimacy.
There is an ongoing play between the copy and the original in your work. You always appropriate texts, but when they are carved in stone the copy somehow becomes an original again. But then you Xerox these clay tablets. Is the copy a printed edition? The documentation?
I really try as hard as I can not to have anything original in my work. I definitely want to be a performer or interpreter of pre-existent texts, which is not the same as a copy. In art we are very absolute. There are originals and copies, whereas in music or theater it's a little more blurry. I prefer that paradigm and try to bring it to the visual arts because I think that it's truer to our experience in post-modernity--we are a cut-and-paste generation. So I bring a text that is already common to clay, which brings it into the biblical or antediluvian while it's just a transcription. And then on top of that, make a photocopy.
In general contracts are written is to be completely explicit and inarguable--you just sign the line in agreement. But you use this common language like an object. The words on the page don't necessitate reading, and perhaps don't have any relevance. Are you concerned about legibility?
All of the work I did for almost 15 years was based in history--but always these lost or obscure histories. I would always berate myself because I'd think, "Why can't I be like Andy Warhol?" He didn't choose some obscure person to make a silkscreen about--it was Elvis, Marilyn Monroe. And they were still alive, so there wasn't even nostalgia involved when he was making these things.
In a way it almost seems like the texts are obscure realities--somehow part of the everyday without actually being used.
I can't be a pop artist, but I have tried to move away from the esoteric and obscure. I'm trying to be less afraid to deal with things that are mainstream or part of the everyday--but I still like the mystery. A thing like "abracadabra" is perfect because we all know it, but we never think what it means. Or even an oath to tell the truth. That oath must be told 20 times an evening on countless police shows.
Are you critiquing the texts that you use?
No, I have an almost totally uncritical love affair with the texts that I'm using. All things being equal, it's only because I care about this exchange with people--if I was making artwork for me it would just be those pieces of text written on the wall. I feel like everything else I'm making is a confection to deliver these texts. I can't even be intellectual about it, I love them so much. Abracadabra means, "I create as I speak," and I could just think about that over and over again in circles. And the new one...
Yes, "Witness my hand"...It seems like all of the texts imply a physical form. Even if they aren't a verb, they are sensory or beg to be spoken.
"I do," I can't get it out of my mind. When you get married, or when someone asks you a question--"I do." But it also means "I make." I can't get past that thought. It's so simple. The things I like have a very sculptural flavor to them.
What EVE ESSEX RISD'09 giveth, she also taketh away.