Your T-Shirt Might Not Want to Be a T-Shirt

Many modern artists have explored the idea that the material world “might want to be organized other than the way we’ve organized it.”
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Question: What is the relationship between objects of fixation in literature and art?

Bill Brown:  Right.  Well, I would, let me answer that, maybe let me avoid that question, perhaps, right?  Because I think that what has become increasingly clear at the end of the 20th century is how much 20th century art is trying to teach us about objects and about object culture, which is to say about how objects make meaning, how objects make meaning for us. And I think right now, certainly in the contemporary art world, there is so much installation work, largely I'm thinking of Tara Donovan's incredible styrofoam cups which end up looking like clouds because they’re glued together, a lot of refabrication.  Or **** production of these object ecology, so it's, you know, toothpicks, Q-tips, and scraps of this, and then the other thing, and they end up being this sort of cosmos.

And artists like that, I think, and not just those artists, I think really mean to be alerting our attention to other ways that objects might be configured, or as I like to put it, or have put it in one essay or another, the possibility that the material world might want to be organized other than the way we've organized it, right?  So that the desire, the denim of your jeans or the cotton of your T-shirt, the object of its desire might be to be a different object, right?  Your T-shirt might actually want to be part of a flag, you know, something along those lines.  And I think it's been a very contemporary art, and a very powerful conduit, to those sorts of ideas.  And those sorts of ideas, philosophically, are very much a part of say, vitalism, I'm thinking of Henri Bergson and then Bergson as re-thought by Deleuze. But it's, I think it's only in the presence of such art that you really experience some of these alternatives, or what I'm calling something like the desire, an inanimate object world's desire to be reconfigured, to have a different shape, right?  And right now, around the city, around your city, if you look at Orozsco’s work in the MoMA, with something like the yogurt tops on four different walls, or Urs Fischer at the New Museum, there's huge aluminum sculptures, I mean, these are all, this is all work that is very powerfully, I think, dramatizing the presence of objects and the importance of objects, as opposed to say, images.  And I think that, you know, if something happened in the 20th century, it's that image culture ended up trumping object culture.  And we have great theories of image culture, too, Debord's Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard's Orders of Simulacra, and we do, I think, also have powerful theories of the object.  But I think that it's really image culture that got the most attention toward the end of the last century.

There's also, there's another artist, a Chicago artist, Marie Krane Bergman, who has for years been doing vast monochrome on canvases made up of very, very small sort of hillocks of paint.  And now one of the practices that she's taken up is to put paint, acrylic paint, on the floor and then to pick it up and hang the paint, after it's dried, hang the paint.  So she will do grids, for instance, and hang them up and then the grid will sag a bit.  And one of the obvious effects of that work is to make one recognize that, you know, paint is never still, you know, paint is always moving.  You know, a 15th century painting, that paint is still moving, it might be moving very slowly, but it's moving.  And it's also, you know, to my mind, a fascinating way for painting to be attending to a different material ground, not as Greenberg and others would say about flatness, about the shape of the canvas, but rather to the paint itself, right?  So now it's just the paint unsupported, as it were supported just by a nail, that becomes the art object.  But there's another moment where, you know, you really do experience with those works, the vitality of paint, even if it's drooping.

Recorded on March 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen