As part of Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, visiting artists participated in Skidmore classes. On April 14, 2017, two courses were uniquely combined for a conversation with Kamau Amu Patton and Ephraim Asili: Adam Tinkle’s “Community and Radio” class and Ian Berry’s “Inside the Museum” class.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation with Patton and Asili.
Tell us about yourselves.
Kamau Amu Patton
I make sound works. I make sculpture. I do textiles. I’m a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
I’m an artist. People say filmmaker. I identify as an artist. I deal with records as well; sometimes that’s called DJing. And whatever else moves me, when it moves me, I’ll try that, too. I teach film production at Bard College. I host a radio show. I just kind of do my thing and call it what you want.
My class is spending the semester thinking about the relationship between artists and museums, and how avant-garde artists have made things that didn’t quite fit in traditional museums and how they had to find alternate spaces, and then potentially those spaces turned museums into different things. Talk about how you have worked inside and outside museums. Have museums been good sites for you? What kinds of constraints are in museums that don’t always t what you want to do?
First and foremost, museums are places where you put stuff in buildings. I’ve always specialized in the ephemeral. I don’t think of my films as being permanent things. I don’t think of my video work as existing on a hard drive, but I think of my videos as existing in the moment that they’re projected. I’ve always had a situation where I don’t know how exactly I interact with the museum world in that way. And as a DJ, generally museums aren’t interested in DJs. Even the idea of DJing as art would be questionable in a lot of spaces.
Generally, I find that museums don’t have a high priority for moving image work. To treat film properly, you can’t have it on display. You need to have it in a dark room and you have to go into the room and be quiet with it, and that’s contradictory to the idea of a museum in a lot of ways. On the one hand, you want your work in a museum. On the other hand, there are always these tensions around how the work lives in the museum. For me, it’s been a complicated relationship.
I think of the museum as a very specific place, not here is my practice, and if it’s good enough, some museum will collect it. I think of it as an engagement where if I’m going to be in the space then I should be interacting with it for what it is. There’s this great film, Statues Also Die, which was about how art from Africa ends up in a Paris museum, totally out of the cultural context. What can that art do for itself to stay alive in the museum? It’s really no different for us. You’re not with your art and you can’t represent yourself; that has a way of flattening everything more times than not. When I have the opportunity to do something at a museum, it’s important for me to do something where I feel like I’m having a dialogue with the museum itself.
I’ve had fantastic experiences at museums and I’ve had terrible experiences at museums. The museum is as good as the people that work there. As an artist, I can think about those conventions of white walls, lighting, rectangles and respond to them, play into them, do whatever, and present a work that fulfills expectations or not. The other side of that is a museum professional who can know those conventions and deviate from them or uphold them more in dialogue with the artist or the art object. These experiences point to the willingness of everyone involved to take chances or push back or deal with their own limitations about what’s possible. I think that anything is possible; you can really do whatever you want to do if you create a space for that.
If you could imagine your perfect museum, what are some things it would have? What would it look like?
It would have time—time to do things. Every museum has a different kind of schedule, but ideally there’s some time to have a conversation and figure out, What does this project really want to be? Permeability, that it doesn’t feel isolated or insulated, that it’s networked, and that could be networked to where it’s actually situated in the world and beyond. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts invited my band to be in a show. We decided that we were going to do this live-on-TV band thing where we would set up a studio and perform. This would somehow be on TV sets throughout the museum. That’s a lot of cables to run through this whole museum. But this museum’s wired so you can just plug into any wall and send audio and video signal to anywhere in the museum. The museum is totally networked to be able to handle media in that way. That met my desire before I even walked in. That is an ideal in terms of the museum anticipating new media and facilitating their deployment.
A strong education department is major. There should be teaching and learning going on. Not just put art up and let it be, but there should be engagement, which potentially includes the people that authored the work in deep investigation regarding the context of where the work sits.
First and foremost, all museums, regardless of where they are, should be free for low-income people, just flat out. Even the idea that that’s an offer can make people feel like this is somewhere that I am welcome. I don’t think I grew up feeling welcome in a museum. It was something that felt sacred. Related to that, most museums don’t have consistent evening hours and most people work for a living, and so not everyone can go look at art on a Wednesday from 2:00 to 7:00. Making it as accessible to as many people as possible. Regardless of what happens inside, you’ve got to start right there.
Inside, a museum should have stuff that people can touch, handle, look at. You should be able to touch a Sun Ra record. You can get a $10 record and a $50 turntable, boom—removing the mystification of things you can’t touch. Obviously, some things people shouldn’t be handling, but there are a lot of things that people can handle. I had a really transformative experience recently. I just finished a film commissioned by the Calder Foundation on Alexander Calder’s sculpture. A lot of Calder’s work is meant to move; it’s kinetic. However, you don’t see the work move because no one is authorized to touch it. So, it’s not really looking at his work. To see the work articulated and to see a human being just lightly touch it and make it move, it was like lovemaking or something. You go away and an hour later it’s still moving. Seeing that was a powerful experience.
Second to that, a darkened room without windows where films can play. I have that in my apartment; every museum should have that. Museums should have a place where the work is accessible and every type of work should have the proper space.
One other thing I would add—and this music festival is a great example—is consistent and regular public performance of music. In the city, it tends to happen as an after party, or, “look at us, we’re doing something zany—we have a band playing on Sunday.” Why is that any different than any other type of art? I have zero understanding of why it’s eccentric to do that in the museum context.
They’re simple things. I’m not saying anything radical, but it’s surprising how much we don’t get these things in a lot of museums.
You mentioned Statues Also Die and the idea of museums as places of decontextualization, but also recontextualization. Could you address that in terms of your practice on radio or as somebody who plays records live? That’s also a practice of decontextualization and recontextualization. How do you think about those two things as related or different?
All very related. I’m very much a record collector. A lot of what I do as a DJ or as a radio host personality, programmer, comes out of a practice of just being really interested in the music itself. I’m a huge fan of music, of jazz music especially, in history and culture. I can pick up a beautiful record and take it somewhere and play it. And then, it’s out on the airwaves and someone who happens to tune in can listen to it—that to me is just fascinating. For me, the radio practice is the inverse of the museum practice because to put the thing in the museum means you have to go there and be with it, but when you put something on the radio, it’s going out, it’s pushing the opposite direction.
Every museum should have a radio station.
My first museum broadcast was at a show I did called Icons of Attention. My work at the time was sound sculpture, dance. I’d been, at the time, toying with ideas around radio and broadcasting. I thought, let’s just do a pirate radio thing. I built instruments, sculptural things to create the sounds that we would use to transmit. All the sculptures were networked into a subfloor that we built. There were contacts on the floor itself, so just walking around the room would create sound. It was just this big instrument. It was usually five, ten people jamming together at any one time and then visitors could come in and touch, beat on the sculptures, bow the sculptures, tap on the sculptures. And all this was sent to the transmitter, which was on twenty-four hours and broadcast into downtown San Francisco. So, for me, the sculpture itself was social and I could invite all my friends to come and hang out and play and also pay them a stipend, so that was cool as a community thing. And the museum had a staff of folks that could say, “Oh, you want to build a subfloor? Okay, we’ve got people that’ll do that.”
The broadcast, for me, was a way to deal with some of these issues around access and inclusion and community. The radius of the transmission was larger than the actual museum — it expanded the walls of the museum. So, you could tune in at any point in time, whether you liked it or not, maybe we were jamming some frequencies, and be a part of what was going on. Also, it was a way for me to rethink sculpture for myself.
It gets to your definition of flexible and open borders. It’s a perfect example of what most museums would not let you do.
At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, have you ever done anything related to radio broadcasting and activism and artwork through sound production or music improvisation?
Yes, all the time. We can do something here right now if you want. In class, we try to experience media as directly as possible and try to be critical of the speed of media. We all know that bandwidth is not equal across all peoples. The faster you get your information, the faster your trades can go. Or the slower your Internet connection, the weirder you are on Skype, so the harder it is for you to get a gig, maybe.
I just thought of eBay auctions.
EBay. You’ve got to snipe it. I’m broadcasting now. If you are on a phone that can receive it, you can go to http://bambuser.com/v/6699766 to receive this broadcast right now and we can see what that’s like.
Turn the sound up. I think you can get the sense of it, in terms of the delay between reality and the image of reality or the transmission. And all the feedback and noise and stuff that happens. The people who run Bambuser are in Sweden. It was echoing, right, the reverberation? I imagine that globally, that’s happening over and over and over and over and over and over; there’s this global echo for every transmission that’s happened.
Like science fiction film in the ’90s, like the planet can hear that sound, like a fax machine.
It’s just like doot-doot-doot… It’s just going and going and going and going and going like everything ever said. That’s the hum that we’re living in right now.