Life Work // I'm Not Asking You, I'm Telling You
Written for the monograph of EJ Hill in April 2013
This writing is part of "To You, From Me," an ongoing, lifelong series of epistolary writings to artists and curators who have made a significant impact on my life and my understanding of art. These writings are an ongoing, personal interpretation of particular artists' and curators' work that weaves together fragments of memories, the receiver's public and online presences, and contextualizes them within different art histories and practices, including my own. These letters are meant for an audience of one—the artist they are written to. All other readers are just eavesdroppers on the conversation.
This series was started in 2013 and recently selected for further development through a residency at the Ragdale Foundation (Lake Forest, IL) and the Banff Centre (Alberta, Canada).
I remember the day you left Chicago for Los Angeles. It was the last day of July and I was at my job. I stepped out of the office to call you before you headed off to the airport. I sat on the north staircase between the first and second floors, phone pressed to ear, trying not to sound too sad when I asked you how you were doing. I didn’t want you to leave. It was hard to see you go, but harder for you, I imagine, since you were closing one chapter and opening another. There, on the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center, I said a bittersweet goodbye and prepared myself for an EJ-less Chicago.
I never expected your leaving to have the effect it did. While distance from your physical presence was hard, this space brought me to a deeper understanding of the work that you do. Over the past two years, so much of your work has been relayed to me in fragments—photos, writings, conversations. These pieces and parts have been my sole frame of reference. This has forced me to take a new look at my intellectual and emotional reactions to your work, as well as how my relationship with you influences and enhances my interpretations. That has been eye-opening, to say the least.
Attempting to write about you and the work that you make while trying to maintain some level of objectivity is laughable. To not pull from every moment that has shaped my experience of your work would be a disservice to you, your lifework and our friendship. So, I’m pulling from it all-- your Tumblr feeds, our 4am phone calls, and our conversations over food and drinks during brief cross-country visits. I’m pulling from my version of what has been said in our hugs and shared moments of silence. And what I hope to create is an honest homage to some of your pieces and how they have impacted my thoughts. This is my attempt to articulate what has felt like an extension of my own struggle over the past two years through the generous work that you do.
Your lifework is about the love. Exposing the flaws. Refusal. Acceptance. Learning through doing. Learning through mistakes. The hideous beauty of failure. Our collective alienation. The things hidden in plain view. The things we refuse to talk about. What words can’t express. The things we ignore. The things we acknowledge. The absurdity of our situation. The therapy we find in one another. The therapy we muster from what we do and how the same thing that offers solace and clarity simultaneously generates anxiety and confusion for ourselves and for others. It is about the spaces and conversations we choose, refuse and unwillingly contribute to. It is about not speaking in definites. It is about uncertainty. It is about testing the quality and credibility of accepted sources of knowledge. It is about confidence in ourselves and our experiences as powerful sources of knowledge.
It is about survival. Resistance.
It is not about being polite, pretty or packaged for convenient consumption.
It's about learning through living.
I. Power // Position, Dynamic, Shift // Unveiling the Thing
Better Than Flowers, November 2011
“...interestingly enough, in a very rare and beautiful moment, the power dynamics that have existed for hundreds of years between artists and the wealthy had been reversed. The performance lasted only a few hours, but during those few hours, from a seemingly degraded position, I silently dictated an entire conversation.”
- Better Than Flowers, October 20, 2011.
Just weeks after starting at UCLA, you participated in that gala--you know the one. I can’t begin to describe what came to mind when I imagined you, head poked through a hole in a dinner table as you slowly and silently rotated your body and your gaze from person to person. Even more arresting than my mental image of that scene was Better Than Flowers, a reflection on your experience of the event. I clearly remember the controversial conversations that people were having around Marina Abramovic’s vision for the fundraiser and the discussions we had before and following it all. I remember the argument that art is work, and artists should be given the same amount of courtesy and respect that any other worker gets on the job. Artists should demand it.
In hindsight it is clear that your decision to participate, while conflicted, conjured up some unsettling and lasting questions. This becomes apparent in your writing and in several of the works that followed. Rather than seeing yourself as a tool to be used by the powerful few, you saw this as an opportunity to come face to face with a facet of the art world that is so often a bit mysterious to the ones who make the work off of which the whole system is built. You saw it as a way to confront it. To understand it by looking it squarely in the eyes. A jolting and admirable quiet victory. I was floored by the courage it took to not only face the thing, but to put yourself in a tense situation with no way of knowing the outcome.
Arguably, you taking a place as the centerpiece of this odd, congratulatory table of wealthy museum patrons led to a shift in your understanding of the artist’s position in this field’s social framework, and how one’s individual actions participate in a much larger conversation. You were digging deeper into something universally relevant, filtered through the lens of personal experience--a quality that is threaded within your work and also a key to realizing its impact. While some were rightfully arguing against participation in the name of self-preservation and a call for change, you came face to face with the ones pulling the strings, in order to make your mind up for yourself.
I see this as one of several experiences that led you down the path of artist as activist. Though when used recklessly that term can cause me to cringe, it is true. You claimed and owned a sense of agency that reached far outside of yourself and wasn’t always explicitly present before. You got closer to equipping yourself with the critical questions that would ultimately pave the way for unforgettable and challenging performances. Your part in this piece was playing into a much larger question. One that brings underlying issues to the table--the value of cultural production, what role the art/artist plays in power dynamics, and the mental, emotional and physical strain put on any artist willing to challenge these topics. You were uncovering the thing.
II. Personal Peace/Piece
Drawn, December 2011 UCLA Graduate Open Studios
“My position is that you cannot work towards peace being peaceful. If the peace is to be one where everybody’s quiet and doesn’t open up … share what’s unspeakable … offer unsolicited criticism … defend others’ rights to speak and encourage discourse, that peace is worth nothing. It reminds me of the kind of peace that was secured in my old country under the Communist regime. That is the death of democracy. That might have consequences as bad as war—bloody war and conflict. So, to prevent the world from bloody conflict, we must sustain a certain kind of adversarial life in which we are struggling with our problems in public.” — Krzysztof Wodiczko; Oct. 18, 2011
In the kind of work that we do I’m afraid there may be no endgame. It is likely that we will always be working towards reconciliation through struggle. Shedding some blood and getting bruised. And it is your struggle that shapes you.
For me, Drawn was the first in several performances that stepped into the territory of activism in an atypical form by being extremely confrontational and by challenging the very nature of the thing--the thing being the system that we as art makers have chosen to participate in, the thing that holds us but doesn’t quite understand us, the thing that we love and hate, the thing we invest our whole selves in. It’s romantic suicide. It squirms at our request for flexibility in thinking and form. To change, it will require blood.
I remember in December 2011 when UCLA’s Graduate Open Studio event happened and you made Drawn. I saw the photos. Dressed in a white button-up shirt, black slacks and black tie (which has become somewhat signature attire for your performances), you dragged your tongue over every surface of the exhibition space within the graduate studio building, around and between the work of your fellow MFA candidates. You know--you were there.
I’ve always seen open studio events like this one as being directly linked to the pressure to produce something and show evidence of work done while in the program up to that point. To show progress. This is easy for artists whose practice and process directly results in the production of an object. Something obvious. Easily consumed. Evidence.
But what to make of an artist like you whose practice and process result in things that are often intangible or disjointed when separated from the artist? And how do these traditional (maybe outdated) but seemingly necessary situations accommodate work like yours? They often don’t. Your studio extends far beyond the walls of UCLA. And though your work has often been seen within the contexts of formal or alternative exhibition spaces, the full extent of your work cannot be captured by these familiar cultural settings. Seeing the progression of images documenting Drawn, and the faint trail of blood that started to follow you around the space, I couldn’t help but wonder why we bleed for this thing that has no intention of bleeding for us, but would rather package, export and benefit from our struggles, and manipulatively coax us into conforming?
But I don’t think that you were bleeding for the thing. You were bleeding as a way to understand and question the thing--for yourself and others like you.
I remember talking to you within days following the performance. Faculty at UCLA required that you repaint the walls of the exhibition space, erasing the kind of evidence that the event demanded in the first place.
The structure of the academic institutional setting and the etiquette it demands is sometimes in direct conflict with the morale of the artists who enter and emerge from it. This conflict can make work like yours seem idealistic and futile if taken at face value. If that’s where someone stops, they are missing the point. The strength in works like Drawn lie only in part by experiencing the act itself--the memories and feelings that those who attended the event left with. The mix of unsettled emotions or empathy that comes with watching you bleed for them, for the thing. The strength is largely in the residual (the blood) and the aftermath (masking the mess). The seeds that are planted. The thoughts that are nurtured. A sense of unrest. The work that comes next.
Frameworks, at the UCLA MFA 2013 Preview Exhibition; November 1, 2012
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” - Martha Graham, October 29, 2012
Your work is a consistent reminder that it is not about the object. It is about the experience. The empty frames that were exhibited in Frameworks reiterated that as they stood in as the outer layer of the performance, just scratching the surface of it all. And again, if that is where someone stops, they are missing the point. For me they were all at once a cunning peace offering after Drawn, a signifier of potential and a nod to the shortcomings of documenting performance.
So, then why even do that--poke and placate after Drawn? I think “Why?” may be the shortest and hardest question that has ever existed. Sometimes I cannot stand it. How do you even begin to answer it? “Why?”--“Because it needs to be done.” “Why?”--“Because I have no other choice.” “Why?”—“Because there is no other way.” “Why?”--“Because I want to.” “Why?”--“Because I’m curious.”
I imagine you got that question from several people as you positioned yourself and braced your body at the door of the gallery for the performance component of Frameworks. You were not making yourself into the gatekeeper but becoming the gate. It’s interesting, the idea of a gatekeeper and the permission-grantor. It has always been a bit of a mystery to me that it is usually presented as a necessity. Someone standing at the gate, peeking out from inside of a locked door at everyone outside. A mediator of quality, the best, the essential. A keeper of an understood and established order of things.
My biggest qualm with art history as it was taught to me largely stemmed from this idea. Who are these people who decide what is written and what goes in the books, curriculum and archives? What did it take for them to gain that position? And who gave them that authority? Why can’t we decide for ourselves and posterity? How does one stand in the middle of an established system and question it in a way that really complicates complacency and doesn’t simply seem trivial and hopeless?
Maybe it takes stepping up to the gate and challenging the keeper’s authority--whether they realize what is happening in a way that sparks reevaluation or affirmation. Or maybe it takes realizing that something just needs to be done. Let’s not float through what always was, as if that is how it always has to be, as if that is all it can be. Occasionally it takes us saying, “Fuck it,” and risking it all. Your time at UCLA has come with a thread of stern talking-tos and resistance. But time and time again you’ve taken the risk. Some might ask who in their right mind would put this education, this promising trajectory, all of this in jeopardy? But on the contrary, I ask how any of us are expected to maintain a right mind when stifling this life force that Martha Graham is speaking of. The energy that whether acted upon or oppressed puts you at risk.
Just one year prior to this you were looking on from a completely different place and position. To the world outside of you, you were the spectacle at that gala. But from your eyes, you were in a position of power within that dynamic. You were commanding the conversation. This time, though you made yourself the line between two ‘sides’ rather than on either side of it, the watchers became the watched for as long as time permitted. And then no one was safe from agitation. I often go back to what Geoff Tuck wrote in Notes On Looking’s lengthy account of that night:
“...I talked myself closer and closer to and inexorably smack into the recognition that what really bugged me about EJ’s performance might be, probably is, that after 7:00 he made me feel like one of the people on the inside. My commonality with them was as one inconvenienced. I became crabby about my loss of agency. I begin to understand really that the focus of EJ’s performance was the border itself, and not the people on either side of it; therefore continuing his performance was necessary, his actions did not judge the border, they drew attention to it.”
And that is such a beautiful place to be. That’s atypical activism--one that forces both sides to relate to one another in a completely unexpected way. You found a way to not take sides in that critical moment. Dissolving the ‘us’ and ‘them’ to become the ‘we’ or flipping the ‘us’ to be the ‘them’ and using a very basic understanding of illusionary personal power as the tool.
IV. Survival + Silence.
Tell; April 1 - May 3, 2013
“You can’t touch silence. You can’t see it. But what does a representation of silence look like? What is the container of silence? I’m thinking of silence almost as a potential energy. The moment right before sound. Something just waiting to happen. The calm before the storm… Just like the filling of the balloon. Potential. But at a certain point, the balloon will only hold so much. Its walls, its boundaries will give way and violently release the very thing that it was made to contain. How tragic.” - EJ Hill; April 5, 2013
Each individual’s relationship to silence is different. In the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about your relationship to it as I’ve been around to witness it, and more importantly your relationship to nonverbal communication. Months ago I became much more conscious of how you use it as a tool to reveal what is at the core of how people relate to one another when face to face. In Tell, silence becomes a test of our ability to connect and a meditation on the limits and holes embedded in spoken language. I remember during a dinner at The Perch we said our hellos, you made a joke, I laughed, you responded to my strange random thoughts, we laughed with others--and you never spoke a word. It took me quite a bit of time to realize that we were having a fulfilling conversation through gestures, facial expressions, prolonged eye contact, posture and shifting stances. It takes a certain kind of knowing in order to do that successfully. It also presents a challenge. You became the spark that silently and astutely forced everyone you ‘spoke’ with to reevaluate their communication and ‘listening’ skills--their ability to say something and not receive the instant gratification of a comparable response through spoken language. For some of us it becomes a dance at the edge of our comfort zones.
When you took your vow of silence as your final thesis piece, I was reminded of that night. I started to question spoken and written language and how it is deceivingly associated with clarity between people. Silence can be a vehicle for clarity--personal and interpersonal. Some things are beyond words. Our voices can be misleading. In some ways, relying on our body in the absence of speech in order to express ourselves creates a new kind of understanding that has become somewhat unfamiliar in the world we live in now. In life nonverbal cues are a piercing way to express ourselves to one another. Not to say that people don’t do it now, but so much of our daily lives are centered around words and images that are detached from our bodies, fragmented, abbreviated, edited and delivered through technology. So much more can be said through a hug than through words, a photograph, drawing, painting, sculpture or any other object.
And that is exactly it. That is why the art that you make should not be called artwork. That word implies something which your work is not--an object standing in as a representation of something else, an object meant to communicate through a filter and at a distance. Lifework, what your work is at this moment, doesn’t allow for distance. It is immersive. It stares us directly in the eye. We can feel its breath on our faces--a breath that has pushed towards us from the other side of a video screen until you fall exhausted on your studio floor. A breath that has provided a disarming breeze for the wine glasses of the wealthy. A breath that has kept you going as you have pulled yourself across fields, streets and gallery floors. A breath that has helped feed oxygen to your muscles as you have wrestled this thing. The breath that fills the balloon.
My deep appreciation of your work doesn’t simply stem from our friendship, a bias that could potentially make my reading of your work dismissible. It comes from a certain indebtedness that I feel to you for getting me closer to clarifying my own muddled understanding and acceptance of this thing through the questions and conversations that arise out of the work that you do. As you wrote eight days into your vow of silence, “I am not making the work, I am living it.” That is felt. Your work exudes sincerity and authenticity. I am grateful for who you are and have always been. And what you will continue to be and evolve into being. Whether silent, bruised, bleeding, clinging, questioning, screaming, recharging, or asking for more, I feel fortunate for being able to travel with you.
All quotes were taken from the Tumblr page of EJ Hill on the indicated date, with the exception of Geoff Tuck, whose quote was taken from the interview “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or ‘I only paid for it!’, thoughts on a recent performance”, published on the blog Notes On Looking on November 12, 2012.
Photos by Matt Austin.