raise the dead

(P)ARS PRO TOTO. Conversation with Douglas Gordon

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Douglas, from the very beginning there is in your work this back and forth between things you make within the studio and within confined spaces and things like your letters which you make "out there".

Douglas Gordon: Around 1990-91 I was living in a very small flat in Glasgow and it wasn't – I don't think it was so much an ethical position like artists from the 60's. It was a much more pragmatic decision for an artist living in Glasgow, with no money and no space, no studio. There wasn't an of a rejection of institutions. it was just an that institutions and the gallery system don't exist in Scotland in the way that they do elsewhere in Europe. So I just wanted to get out. And one of the ways to get out was to use the postal system and the telephone. In a way, if you made letters and made telephone calls you almost weren't as far away from people as geographically it might seem.

HUO: Let's talk about the large-scale painting in Vienna which is going to be almost like a street painting – graffiti. What about your of public art?

DG: Some are specifically good in a more public situation. And, you know, you are a human being and you have lots of so let's have some of the in museums which should be in museums, because they would be stupid on the street – and lets have some on the street which would be stupid in the museum. It was really as simple as that.

HUO: The most interesting 90's art has this mobile fluid strategy like your Migrateur Project at the l'ARC with the same sentence appearing in different forms – as graffiti on the toilets, as a virus in the telephone system and then as a museum presentation.

DG: You can take a red balloon and let it float around the street where it may mean one thing – you have a red balloon in a house, it means another thing. You know, for instance, this text that we used at the Migrateur which was really based around, I suppose, the principle of transience between a possible meeting between a possible one or two or more people. If you sit on a toilet and you read, "From the moment you read these words until you meet someone with blue eyes", it's very different from reading it when it's hanging next to Sonja and Robert Delaunay. And it is also very different from if you hear it on the telephone. You could take something which was apparently absolutely finite because it's words, it's language which appeared to be concrete – but by just letting it go into a different field, each time it could mean more things to more people.

HUO: Your Viennese large-scale painting is the fourth in the series "Vienna Strip". Venturi uses the term "decorated shed". It is also an exhibition for the traffic jam because every day you have, hundreds of thousands of cars passing by glimpsing a detail of this world. That is the first question concerning the large-scale painting. The pars pro toto seems something which constantly reappears in your work. I mean, if I think for example of your list of names it is a kind of encyclopaedic drive which of course always remains incomplete. Or are you implying that these are on another level – and I mean from the cinema works? Psycho 24 hours but even stronger. With The Searchers it's always a pars pro toto. The viewer can never grasp the whole.

DG: You know, to me I think it has never been important that people see everything all of the time. I think the that there is a missing part. It means that the meaning can't be absolutely clinically defined and I suppose you know maybe this is something that I enjoy. If you can make a statement which has got a missing part it makes people come back and look at the statement again, again and again

HUO: Like with your sentence for Vienna where you've now decided it would be interesting to drop half of it.

DG: For the large-scale painting project, when we spoke originally, we were talking about this of two separate sentences existing on the one large-scale painting and that would be to say, "Cinema is dead", which is almost a common phrase nowadays like, "Painting is dead". And I liked this that if painting is dead or if cinema is dead then, well, let's "raise the dead". Let's bring it back to life because the of raising the dead is absolutely taboo in every culture on every level. When they're dead you're supposed to acknowledge the dead and let them be, and by raising the dead you bring in lots of other of zombiism and ghosts and spectres and doppelgangers – and that to me was very interesting when I started to think about it more. It was fundamentally the of raising the dead not just to link the cinema, but just where that phrase could sit in culture, and not even in culture but on the street in Vienna. I was interested with what other people had done on the large-scale painting – Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha and Walter Obholzer? They had almost taken art into the street, and for me I didn't want to do that again. I liked the of taking the street onto the street but in a kind of super realist way – and also it's a street from one city taken to a street in another city. The photograph is made in Glasgow but we are going to show it in Vienna. The language is English in a German speaking city, you are seeing the super-realist image in black and white but it is in colour, the phrase itself, "raise the dead" is a perfectly simple phrase but is a completely anti-social, pagan, anti-twentieth century It goes against the rationale which modern cities have been built on.

HUO: Your work can be associated with a kind of neo-gothic movement more known in American literature.

DG: This whole of the gothic has been talked about a lot recently with the exhibition in Rome. I made images of myself as a monster, only using sellotape, and it's a completely hideous image. There is this association with Alighiero e Boetti and his belief in systems of knowledge other than the one that a human rationale would tend towards. Lord Byron's real name is George Gordon, so probably there is a family connection somewhere along the line and of course all those weird things that Byron and Shelley were up to, trying to raise the dead and raise spirits and things. Yeah, I'm interested in all this.

HUO: Yet at the same time "raise the dead" is not a retro kind of statement in a nostalgic sense. I read it like Jonas Mekas, his scepticism about "Hundred Years of Cinema" which almost kind of buries cinema. His that cinema began basically with the avant-gardism of the 20's. Your work sometimes, mainly now with this large-scale painting in black and white, makes strong allusions to avant-gardist cinema. It is almost like a still and makes allowances that cinema may have started with the invention of the 16mm film in 1923 is beginning with renewal At the end of the millennium there are all these end-games. Like what Y.A. Bois says about painting as a model, where he actually says that it is like in football. Modernism is a match between Marseilles and Paris St. Germain which could go on for a 100 years and make breaks. Next Saturday, there is a match. And I read the sentence "raise the dead" also in this sense of maybe starting a new match in the game of cinema or art, or.

DG: It is not a big deal to say that cinema is dead. But if it is dead then what are we going to do with it? Let it stay dead or try and see that it's not nostalgic. If you have a ghost, the ghost is a problem because the ghost can't relate to what's happening in daily life. I like that – that just by raising the dead you cause a rupture and in this case maybe it's a rupture in the city. And also I think that in a city like Vienna it that could be a strange thing to walk home to at night with this in your head about ghosts and spirits. – Are these things dead in the first place? You know it is a finite statement but I think that with infinite ways of reading it, a lot of questions arise because of the simplicity of the text. Why raise the dead? What will happen when you raise the dead, and who is dead?

HUO: So it's something like a trigger?

DG: I always liked the that words which are supposed to be concrete, when spoken by a different person at a different time can have a completely different meaning. This always reminds me of an amazing thing. When you are reading something on a page you have a voice in your head which is reading and telling you the words. Where does this voice come from? Whose voice is it? I think this is still one of the critical things that you can do with text that you can't do with another medium – that you have this invisible voice.

HUO: Language and context?

DG: Actually, I was talking to a woman in Oxford last week about this new video piece that I made which has got a 1960's film of a stripper, very erotic. We started to talk about an advertising campaign in the 1950's in France. "Sustain the weak, hold back the strong, bring back the lost ones!". This is an advertising campaign for a bra. It is really in the tradition of French public statement – you could imagine this is a political campaign. This could be like from the Revolution. I found this Madonna interview. The questions were in Hungarian, translated into English for Madonna, her replies were then translated back into Hungarian, then it was translated back into English.

HUO: With regard to your text in Vienna there is also a rupturing of indifference, in the midst of the ever increasing information fuzz.

DG: Yeah, I mean I think it's one of the amazing things which the large-scale painting has to offer – that it is not on the same frequency as the Internet, that it's not about the same amount of information that a newspaper has to carry. It could carry a lot of information but this is probably not the best way to use it.

HUO: Something you have always created in your letters, but also in your text pieces is this notion of a testimony, the reasoning of the viewer being a testimony. A testimony of a secret or a witness to something very private sometimes in the most public possible space.

DG: Maybe you have a person driving home seeing this text, "raise the dead", it means nothing but it means possibly everything. What do they do? Do they go home and forget about it or do they go home and say to their girlfriend or boyfriend or son or daughter, "Did you see this thing? What can it mean?" Because for me art in any circumstances, whether it's in a museum or outside the museum is for people to go home or to a bar and talk about it. And if they end up talking about something else altogether that's OK, because then the art has acted as a trigger to social dynamic.

HUO: To stay with this relational issue which you mention in terms of your triggering some talk or gossip or rumour or discussion or discourse or whatever it can be – small or big stories. Sociology has this term "oral history", many 60's performances – lots of different events which only 5 people may have witnessed – through their testimony the whole world today knows about them, so it's almost like a chain letter.

DG: I think the or the mechanism of mythology is one of the most important social mechanisms. To understand that mechanism, I think, is absolutely critical. It's like you say, all these things that happened in the 60's like some Joseph Beuys performances. As an artist from a different generation one has a relation to it only through second, third, fourth hand oral history. I think that this is just an incredible social mechanism, where people who have no experience of the object, of the action can have a dialogue about something which maybe did not even exist in the first place. And I think this is a beautiful, fundamental aspect of human relationships. And that human beings sitting in a room or in a bar somewhere are willing to make a kind of leap of faith towards an object which may never have existed, towards an action which may never have happened, and have a discussion about it and I mean really about it and around it.

HUO: Stories mutate, I recently spoke with Rirkrit Tiravanija about recipes and recipes mutating. And I think it's the same with the kind of stories you are working with, they mutate through space and time.

DG: I think that my whole family background was always about story telling. People will sit and tell stories all the time and actually I think probably the first few times that you came to Glasgow there was very little discussion about the art object or the art action, but there was a lot of talking around these issues of story telling. Less with fairy tales much more with urban mythologies. If somebody tells you a story take an image away.

HUO: Let's talk about the translation issue. It's not by accident that we came to your Madonna interview which was translated from one language to another. This graffiti being made in English in Glasgow, but then you translate it in a multiple way, not only space-wise , but also time-wise. Then there is the issue of black and white. Felix Gonzalez-Torres always told me that he thought the most abrasive thing is to put black and white in a place where you have colour advertisement.

DG: What we are seeing is really only a photograph of a piece of graffiti which has been made in Glasgow and which has been taken to Vienna and re-scaled. The decision to make it in black and white and on such a scale – it's like the scale of a super-large drive-in movie. And the black and white reference is obviously – people can relate that to film. This that black and white, in a way, can have more impact than these super-real colour strategies. If the real world is living in real time and in real colour all of a sudden, by slicing through by taking a different time to look at something, but in the real world – that dislocation is interesting to me. You have a whole city basically revolving around the Kunsthalle. I liked the fact that right at the centre of the city, you could have something which was, like, slicing through reality, it was a representation of reality, but at one remove from it simply by making it in black and white. It's a translation, I think it's not a formal translation between colour and black and white, but a translation of time.

HUO: I think there is a big shift actually from this space readymade to the time readymade, and that your work has really explored certain readymades, somebody once called it assisted readymade. I would rather talk about time readymades. Duchamp had foreseen this but it was little explored, and it needed a generation of artists of the 90's to come to this kind of time readymade. And in Duchamp's notes, the speculation which is in his notes from the 20's, two types of readymades are outlined. On the one hand the kind of more space-wise readymade. Bringing an object to the gallery as an object by dislocating it and having it in another context, and then of course freezing it and it becoming (even if there is an elimination of taste) becoming very fast an object of taste and mainly a fetish. Duchamp had this second type of readymade, instructions. – There is a kind of instruction Duchamp wrote in the 20's, like buy a dictionary and cross out all the words you dislike. It's actually something that can be read on in time, it's really time readymades. The way you deal with film and filmic archive materials, you re-slice and re-contextualise them. The Searcher (film by John Ford) is of course the most extreme piece of a time readymade, as you intend to extend it to five years.

DG: When I was about 15–16 years old, making drawings of stuffed animals and rotting vegetables, like every school child does, I remember one of my teachers, coming up with two books and saying, "I don't really like these guys very much, but I think they are probably quite important for you to look at. But for me one of the most important things, when I was reading Duchamp, was this chess game with the naked woman in Los Angeles. To take social activity as a readymade, bring it into the museum, and almost kill people with time because of how long this was going to take. I don't play chess, but I love the of it, the strategy over a long period of time and the fact that if you are a spectator at a chess match, you have this incredible feeling that real life has somehow stopped, because everyone in the arena is completely absorbed in this battle, which is so slow.

HUO: I recently spoke with Walter Hopps about it who had actually organised the show in Pasadena which was the first retrospective of Duchamp in a museum ever. Walter Hopps told me what he learned from Duchamp was that an art object should never stand in the way.

DG: This is really my principle that art is really an excuse to have a dialogue. As I don't collect art I make art. And as a maker of it, it's the which are important. I know I don't really care about the objects. So, for me, I make so that I can go to the bar and talk about it.

HUO: So it really is a process and not a fetish, as Adorno claimed. This leads us to a cinematographic notion of the exhibition. I mean, also the way you deal with displays seems interesting to me with regard to exhibition reality. If I think in terms of your screens – on the one hand you bring it into space, but then it's more participatory in Weimar. I actually found it the most participatory all of a sudden there were ghosts appearing, but then I realized it was my own hand.

DG: In a way I'm trying to set things up where people may remember doing something as a child with the experience of television or pop music or film for the first time. And you know when you are in a cinema for first time, immediately as a child you put your hand up and you try to interrupt the projection just to see what happens and then you can decide whether to continue to annoy everyone or stop. And I think we still carry these things around with us and I think we can re-animate the museum in a way, but not by setting it up for people really to play with. I mean to try and use the readymade really just as a small piece in a large game – and the game has absolutely no rules for people. They can come back and play it again in a different way.

HUO: This time readymade notion brings us to John Latham's time-based work. All of your work is time based. Where are the differences?

DG: I really think that the difference between our generation and other generations is that it's not even a flow of images that we have to deal with, or a flow of information – it's a deluge, and I think probably the way this interview is going is absolutely indicative – there are so many other things happening.

HUO: Broodthaers said, "Every truth is always surrounded by many other truths which are worth being explored."

DG: Since we came into this flat where we are having a conversation with each other, and while we are talking in real time we are remembering what happened 5 minutes ago, we are anticipating the next question, we can hear the roadworks outside, there is a TV here, there is the telephone ringing, there is music playing – but we can handle this as human beings. But this is very late 20th century. I think this is absolutely not the way that someone like Broodthaers could live, or someone like Duchamp could live.

HUO: Francis Yates "Art of Memory" shows that our mind always works in a cinematographic way.

DG: I think you mentioned the of oral history. Oral history is translated and remembered as it can be remembered as a series of images like in the Yates theatre of memory where you open one door and one person walks out and they tell you something which is a memory. For our generation the flood of images and flood of information is just incredible. Most people use the Internet while watching TV, listening to music, speaking and drinking , all at the same time and they're maybe on the telephone. It's almost like taking the which was in Manifesta from Uri Tzaig. where he has this game of football happening, where you play one game of football with two balls but its almost like you have to take it even further. It really is like an insanity, that you have a stadium with football with two balls and tennis balls and some horses running around etc. I think it is a kind of schizophrenic cohabitation of one body. That schizophrenia isn't always necessarily to be seen as one body battling to reach between all the different personalities, but it's the battle between the personalities to inhabit one body. And I think that the way that life is heading, in 1996 towards 2000, is an absolutely schizophrenic experience. We see it everywhere. Vienna is a particularly schizophrenic city.

HUO: The large scale painting is a paradox of a dynamic standstill.

DG: It's a cinema scale and people think cinema is always going to be moving -but let's stop it like in The Searchers, for five years. Let's almost take the conventions of the cinema and raise the dead by bringing them back to life and really fucking it up by saying. no let's take certain loans of cinema and let's really fuck them up by making them stand still, just to see what happens. It's not a big philosophical argument against cinema, let's look at it a different way to see what happens.

HUO: The process you're describing is also an undoing of hierarchy – which opens multiple passages and translations.

DG: I really like the taking flaneurism into the 21st century, where we are not only walking around the city. We are really not scanning things but we are trawling. If you have a trawler and you throw a net wide enough, what you bring in is not just what you want to get. Sometimes you get these dangerous fish, ugly things. But you bring it all in and look at it and see, yeah, you get trash. Which takes us to Andy Warhol. – The whole of trawling for trash in the way that he was trawling for images. I think that we are even in a better position to trawl because we don't have to make a distinction in terms of a hierarchy. To me the John Ford movie is equal to this pornographic film that I found in San Francisco, which is equal to the scientific documentation of madness which is equal to the films of the flies. This is the one thing that we can do with the readymade – to reduce everything or to elevate everything to the same status. I still think this is one of the great things that art can do because we don't have to work with the established system. It is the job of the first artist to collapse the system and then out of that collapse allow people to pick up and whatever it is they find interesting. They don't know it is art, it just looks interesting.

HUO: Another thing which obviously leads you to Warhol is the notion of spending time with the art work and also the artist, like when he was hiding a cassette tape under coffee-house tables and then sitting at the next table as a voyeur, waiting for conversations to be taped. In the Giga-Building Pompidou you made a very strong point with your threatening insects, the micro organism taking over

DG: From the nano to the giga there is no real difference. I think as a human being your experience of the large-scale painting and the nano museum - most people would see the large-scale painting within the vista of the city, and within the vista of the city the large-scale painting can appear very small. And with the nano museum you can go to sleep with this held 2 inches away from your eyes and it becomes your field of vision – so for me there is no difference in hierarchy. As they always say in these sex manuals – size is not important, it's what you do with it.

HUO: You frequently make casual collaborations with friends.

DG: I've made collaborations with Craig Richardson, Roddy Buchanan. I've been working on things with Jackie Donnachie, Graham Gussin, Simon Patterson, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, probably more to come. It's a social thing again. Two people can come together at one point in their lives and do something together which is appropriate. We don't have to get married and live together forever, but we can have a nice affair and, you know, move on and do it again with someone else. And I think probably for our generation, the Aids generation, maybe this is one of the few places left that you can be promiscuous.

HUO: Science sees the 90's as a decade of the brain which will then bring us to art and brain. The 90's are also the decade of mutation.

DG: I mean, if the respected scientists say that the 90's is the decade of the brain, this is fantastic, because no one knows how the brain works. So then the 90's becomes the decade of no one knowing how anything is working anymore. We are both saying that neither of us can remember the 80's. I actually doubt if we will remember the 90's either. And maybe this is one of the long term effects of this flood of information. And maybe our generation's easy access to information and lack of interest in making a hierarchy out of all the information and maybe that's something the next generation will have to do. Think at the moment we're trawlers and the next generation may be going fishing for something specific.

HUO: What about the "object" amidst all of this information deluge?

DG: As someone who appropriates other images, I know that a lot of this material I made temporarily concrete is then on to somewhere like the Internet, or is in magazines and other people are using it already.

HUO: Art for all, as Gilbert & George always say.

DG: At the moment I don't see a lot of people that we work with making huge impossible paintings or impossibly heavy sculptures. People are more trading in

HUO: The 90's also lead us more and more from this confining and limiting notion of ownership. Buckminster Fuller is the big pioneer, he always said housing is a service, why do we have to own a car, why do we have to own all these things and maybe it is the same thing about art.

DG: You know I never thought of anyone owning art, even if I went to visit a collector and they had some beautiful work. I remember waking up in someone's house with a terrible hangover and the first thing I saw was this fantastic Marcel Broodthaers. The cows with the names of the cars and that was my experience, it doesn't matter who owned it, it was my experience and I took it away, not physically but psychologically. And for me, you know, the of an owner of an is an impossibility.

HUO: Last question: 5 years ago you said, "We are 90's people, not 60's people. I do really believe that the best artists working at present all over the world are trying to find new territories." How would you see these new territories now.

DG: I think whatever the new territories were 5 years ago are completely different already. It's constantly shifting – physically and politically. From 1991 to 1996, in terms of Eastern Europe, there is complete border shifting all over the place. Sometimes change is being made obviously not for the better, but the fact is they are new territories. I think maybe the of the territory is something personal for the artist, but something maybe professional for a curator to so I don't want to be the one who the territory. I'm still in the woods, I can't get out of the woods to see where I am. I'm still moving so I don't know which territory I'm in yet. I didn't know where I was 5 years ago, I don't know where I am now.

HUO: In the middle of everything, but in the centre of nothing.

DG: Yeah, those old wall drawings of, "I've forgotten everything, I remember nothing, I cannot remember anything." You know, the more you say this, the more definite the state of amnesia becomes. And that, I think, is a beautiful paradox in itself – a concrete state of amnesia. It's a contradiction, but it's a nice one.