Portraits of Artists 52

Conversation with Lawrence Weiner

Vitus Weh: Mr. Weiner, I am very pleased that you are here and that I can talk to you. There is a very big work of you at a Flakturm in Vienna and I am lucky to see it every day from my kitchen window: There you write two versions, a German version and an English version: "Smashed to pieces – In the still of the night." What is the difference between the English and the German version?

Lawrence Weiner: English speaking people can read the English version and German speaking people can read the German version!

VW: I see! So I suggest I ask my questions in German and you could answer in English.* – You are sporting several tattoos; I wonder whether there is a connection to your work you have been doing for the last decades? Could you tell me, when you had those tattoos done and why you had them done?

LW: Okay, I have more than one tattoo, that is beside the point. I often refer to the work when it is placed into the society, because I prefer to use existing structures, and when I have to use other structures I try to keep them within the line of the structures that are existing within the society. A tattoo is a mark of Cain, which actually is an acceptance of the fact that something you are willing to stand for, something that you are placing within the society. My own personal tattoos have really and truly nothing to do with art. I don't get the fascination with the personal corps or personal body of artists as such as to understand perhaps what is going on. This tattoo is pretty self-obvious what it is and what it stands for. And it still stands for that: I still basically consider myself an American working class socialist, an idiosyncratic socialist, maybe not what in Europe people who make their living teaching, but not living that socialism, but the idea that each to their needs and each to their necessities. Tattoos themselves are a placement within the society of something that once it is there it could be removed, but it is a hell of a job! The only reason that the city of Vienna has finally accepted the Flakturm is that it is such a big job to get rid of the Flakturm! The Flakturm itself is too large, secondly, they can't find housing for all the fish. You know, there is a housing shortage in Vienna and they just would not know where to put the fish. But as far as painting it out: once it is up, it's up!

VW: To me it seems very important that these works stay there, and it somehow is inconsistent with this prejudice that emerged in Concept Art saying that all that matters is the idea. This is the point I want to get to: in your statement you yourself put it that way: "The piece may be fabricated, the piece need not be built."

LW: Or: "The artist can build it!"

VW: Or: "The artist can build it."

LW: "Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision rests with the person or the society that is going to use it."
You know, one interesting thing comes up with that, first of all: What is art? Everybody wants to talk about how each artist fits in separately into a hegemony of what their idea of art history is and their idea of logic. But if you question: what is art? – art is really and truly a very social activity. Somebody comes along and turns something that before existed, but not as an object, into an object, and that allows the society, which is institutional or personal, by accepting responsibility, to take that thing and put it within the composite of their life. When a museum acquires a work and puts it in a public collection and people find it interesting enough to go and to look at, they enter that into their composite. If you think about yourself as a child finding a Caspar David Friedrich in a museum and standing there and knowing nothing about art but knowing that this is building something that you can use as a metaphor. Art is not to be a metaphor! Art is used by the people who will use it as a metaphor. So, somebody who comes along and turns something into something that was never looked before possible for somebody to feel as a part of them, that is what an artist is! (.)

VW: Those words are not meant to say that you always can also pack them and put them away to take them out at any other place, be it a completely different one or a neutral one like a museum, and place them there. Do they have something to do with the reality they are situated in?

LW: Very much! The whole point was that when I began – about the nineteen-sixties, the early – to get the opportunity to show, I began to realize that there was something wrong with the way people were looking at art. I had my heroes and I had the people that I had found as a young working class person finding art, who I thought were quite brave and quite intelligent like Barnett Newman and people like that. But at the same time there was a dependence and a reliance upon the fact that once something was made, it was so special because this person was supposed to be special that made it. You know, the person that made it was good at what they did. The thing might be special, but that does not make the person special. So I began to realize that with all this talk about art, art by telephone, art by this, art by that, that as long as the point was made, it did not matter much whether the artists made it themselves, somebody else made it or somebody had told somebody about it. Now, when you think about in terms of what a book is, and when you think in terms like "museum in progress" and all, when you see something in the newspaper, that in fact is not presentation of art, that is the presentation of the "Inhalt", the content of art. (.)

VW: These wall installations, these outdoor installations, are these the real sculptures you create?

LW: Yes, sculptures.

VW: Or is the sculpture already there entirely in the gallery where the project is first suggested?

LW: The same thing. It is the same content. One accepts all the restrictions placed upon you in a gallery. Galleries are a funny thing: I prefer commercial galleries to museums most of the time for Contemporary Art, for art that is being made in our own times, because the public can come off the street into a place, look at what they are looking at, and if they find something there they can use it and if they don't they can laugh, they can do anything they want, they can leave. There is no authority in a gallery. A gallery is just a boutique, it's a market, it's a place where people who make things lay those things out to try to sell them. When somebody comes into a museum or a Kunsthalle, even people in the art world believe that this is some form of authority – but authority from whom? I thought that making art was a questioning of what was going on: artists make art because they are dissatisfied with the configuration of the world as they see it. And instead of taking the role of a false prophet or taking the role of false politician they present to the world another reality and from that reality they do hope that the world would change their mind. But if you come along with the authority of a culture that you are claiming not to believe in – it's like going out starting some kind of a change in the rights of human beings and then turning around to the most reactionary person and hoping that they would love you. One of the things artists have to learn to do is to do without the love of the people they hate.

VW: Going back to this difference between the state of a project and of an executed work outside: so the sculpture is not public, because it becomes a sculpture only through reception, because it is seen, because many people somehow make it a sculpture, a sculpture of thought, but is it a sculpture already as a pure act of writing?

LW: You are looking at it in a very, very – I hate to say this – a very shallow way. I see a public sculpture exactly on the Flakturm, exactly as I see a small badge that somebody wears or a t-shirt with something on it or a hat with something on it or what you are getting back to with your tattoos. It's placing in the public a certain kind of information. You can't forget that every line that somebody draws is a language, is an attempt to communicate with other people. Art is made by people for other people. So, if you can wear a badge and go in a rock-concert, if you can wear a badge and walk on the street, if you can carry a sign that is "Gegen Rassismus" or a sign that says something else you are making a public sculpture. It is a fact, it is a reality. If somebody can take a picture of it and show it to somebody else, if somebody else can tell somebody else, if a person in a "Kneipe" can tell another person what those people stand for because they had a badge or they had a graffiti on the wall, it's an object, it's not a question any longer. There is no difference. (.)

VW: To draw another parallel: These books you are making – you made a lot of books – are they a kind of "social tattoo"? Because you can close them, you can take them whenever you need them, whenever they concern you, whenever you are interested in them, and you can close them again and put them aside?

LW: That is very strange! Why can't it just stay a book? You see, the interesting thing about a book is that people can take it to the toilet. They can walk with it and in fact the one problem with the – I am doing a palace for the net – with the computers is that any given moment the people in power can turn off the electricity. In a minute that's gone: That was the problem with McLuhan, that's why McLuhan made no sense in the end. You tie yourself and ally yourself to people. Building a computer is easy, anybody can do it with things they find in the streets, practically. it's not that complicated – but you can't make enough electricity to keep it going all by yourself. So, at any time that the ruling powers decide that you are not to present things, they can turn it off. A book, once it is made it disappears, it ends up in the world, people find it under beds, they find it in boxes.
(.) If the times are as much of a catastrophe now as they seem to be, it's very important for artists to leave the protection of the institution, to figure out some way to survive economically, and you can't talk about this nonsense, about "Oh, it's so hard to be an artist," and "It's so hard to be a young artist." It's a bitch for absolutely everybody in the world to make a living! And that goes from the head of a company to the person who has to sweep the street. It's a bitch, that's not a question. The question is, if you want to talk about idiosyncratic socialism, that each person has a right to a place to live, a right to health care, a right to an education, and a right to some kind of dignity. That's it, but the idea of an artist leaving the protection of the institution and setting up an alternative culture, setting up a way that these things are constantly being presented, not even aggressively. The only aggression necessary is to defend yourself against people who are trying to stop you from saying what you have to say. It's not against people who do not want to give you money because in fact they don't have to. Why should a healthy society pay you for criticizing them? In fact, we know it's a good business for them to do that, they get their value. But they should not have to, there should be no rules.

VW: Do you believe in groups?

LW: That's a crazy question! Of course I believe in groups, otherwise I could not walk down the street. We are sitting in a room here, these four of us. If you want to go back to an idea of real primitivism there are enough things you are wearing, that are in this room for me to live for a year. If I didn't believe in the group I'd kill the three of you, I'd take all the stuff, and I would live on it.

VW: It seems to me that you are interested rather in individuals than in a "community," rather in the individual reader than a large public. It seems to me that if there are books there also is a culture of books, a culture of readers. These readers always are isolated, every single one with his book, every one educates themselves.

LW: Yes, that is the whole point.

VW: . and also disciplines themselves.

LW: But if they tell somebody about it that's another group, that is not literate, that hears about it. And when you talk about groups: I believe in a certain kind of idiosyncratic necessity: It has nothing to do with being against the group to accept the fact that you have your own personal responsibility. If you accept your personal responsibility within the group, then you are part of the group. There is no reason why everybody has to be in accord. There is some No-Nos, there are some things we find that don't work, and that's the same in art. There are some things you don't do – you don't exploit people to make art and you don't kill people to make art. That's one of your choices. If you want to kill people you become a soldier or a police-man or a gangster or a criminal, you don't become an artist. But that is an existential choice.

VW: You are not a teacher, but you do seminars.

LW: Yeah, "Sozialer Dienst!" That's what it is. It's true: If you reach a point. I am old. I have been showing since I am eighteen years old, since 1960. You reach the point where somebody comes and says, "I found your work when I was sixteen, fourteen. and I thought this and I thought that. would you talk to me about it?" Well, there is no way that you can do your work and talk to everybody that comes along. So you accept occasionally – for very little money, it turns out – to do a seminar with people. It is quite interesting for me, so I don't mind, because I know that everybody in the room is interested in the subject. I hope it's not just that they are interested in me. And that is not modesty, it's just that it's not very interesting. It's like: I know what I am thinking, so therefore why would I want to go travel halfway around the world to stand up to say exactly what I have heard before? I would really much rather have a conversation. So I do a seminar and do meet some interesting people. When I was younger it was also a means for making some money. But to join the institution, to join the army, that is a very big choice; to sign the paper that says you are part of the army and you have an authority. I do not really want authority when I so-called "teach." I will just really be somebody there who is. – there is the point – I am a really reasonably well-educated person, I have an experience level in the world and I just want to be in a situation, where I am accepted for what I am, and we talk about something else.

VW: You also got into touch with a Viennese group "Die Damen" with whom you did several actions, performances. Now you have also published a book in cooperation with Ms. Jürgenssen which is going to be presented. Can you tell us something about it?

LW: I am a New York artist and I work as well with musicians and with film makers and other people. I am used to working, to make a "Projekt" with a group of people without having to give up my own essential individuality. I have some skills, the other people have some skills, and you could put together a thing. Or politically, I found myself in a situation where I do get along quite well with "Die Damen" for films, for other things. The book with Birgit Jürgenssen. Birgit had done the set of photographs about "Tätowierungen", a set of photographs about her own relationship to the world – of a female artist – reaching this point of maturity. People as they get a little older in the world reach a certain point where they begin to realize other things. And the body in our society is an important aspect of value – people are judged by how they look. Birgit was working on the book, we discussed it, and there are some things I understand about making books and there are some questions I have about: "What is pornographic and what is not pornographic? What is exploitative and what is really just quite normal in the personal sexual relationships between people? Is it wrong to find somebody sexually attractive?" We all understand that it is wrong to rape somebody, but to find them sexually attractive and to go out of your way to look at them? That is the question. Is that wrong? So, Birgit and I began to collaborate on this project, but they are Birgit's photographs, they are Birgit's identity and Birgit's idea of trying to find her place in the world. My place in the world is trying to figure out how to present this information in a way that it comes out, that each person coming to it can make up their own mind without having to accept my moral standards. So it's normal for me to work with groups of people. But it is only possible because each of the people I work with goes on their own path at any given moment. It's like musicians: They come together and there is something that comes out of it, it's one recording session. That does not mean that Willie Nelson is Charlie Parker.

VW: But when you started, in 1969.

LW: '67, '68, maybe '66.

VW: . there were books edited by Seth Siegelaub comprising contributions by Robert Barry, Andre, and by you which were always separated, never compound, it wasn't an actual cooperation, but a collection.

LW: That was a different time and different things! But at the same time I was working on small productions and actions and theatre things with other people. I think we just have to look at the product itself and if it was a group product.

(Vienna, May 1996)

* In the following Vitus Weh asked his questions in German which were answered by Lawrence Weiner in English.