AO Interview: Jordan Wolfson – winner of The Cartier Prize 2009 at Frieze Art Fair

October 21st, 2009

In London’s Regents Park – as part of Frieze Art Fair – A ‘re-enactment’ as part of Jordan Wolfson’s intervention, Your Napoleon, based on the String Theory

Based in Berlin and New York, artist Jordan Wolfson creates videos, installations and photographs that exist on the spectrum between Pop Art and Conceptualism – inventively fusing the two into a unique language, his works reference and mix up common mythologies and histories, technology,  popular culture, and media, whilst maintaining the touch of uncanny personal experience. Wolfson was this year’s winner of the prestigious Cartier Award, at Frieze Art Fair. There he staged an elaborate project appropriating the scientific concept of String Theory, to comment on how we try to understand and describe the reality of our world. Participants were able to sign up to a tour through the fair guided by a String Theorist, the ensuing conversation was recorded and then transcribed. Each tour added to a constantly evolving and expanding script. Wolfson then manipulated this script by randomly placing excerpts from the last 30 years of cultural history – including stories about  – marrying science with popular culture. Finally, these stories were re-enacted just outside the fair, in Regents Park, in a private recital with the artist and two performers. The project as a whole represented the collective cultural psyche of the fair using a distinctive conceptual language.

Related Links:
Frieze Art Fair
Frieze Foundation Cartier Award

Interview after the Jump….

Jordan Wolfson, winner of The Cartier Award 2009 at Frieze Art Fair

ArtObserved was able to catch up with Wolfson after the fair and ask him about his experiences in implementing the project and what he, himself, was hoping to achieve.

AO: In the simplest terms can you describe the premise of this work, and what is it you are trying to achieve?

JW: I think, in the simplest terms it is a project about cultural symptoms. Not only this, it is an exercise in how we talk about and describe reality. I don’t really see a difference between a metaphysical reality and pop-culture, because these are all things that inundate us, and all things that come in through all our sensory experiences and make up what it means to be alive today and living within our culture. Even though that sounds like a broad universal statement, I think that it holds a lot of validity, in that this scientific theory, String Theory, is intended to be a way for us to describe our reality and existence, or [even] all of existence. Art is inherently a kind of project which is about searching for meaning; therefore, in implementing it into an art fair, these things go hand-in-hand.  By transcribing and re-enacting, doing a live translation of the conversations with added inserts from the last 30 years of cultural history, somehow tries to bring all these things together as a kind of stew, an almost visceral experience. But simultaneously, the work focuses on what “symptoms” are within our world, and what are symptoms within our reality.

AO: Does this mean that the project is not necessarily reliant on String Theory itself, but that this is just one example, a contemporary one, of how we try to understand the world around us and reality? You mentioned to me previously that religion was an example of what would have been used in the past. Could String Theory, therefore, be substituted for an alternative theory?

JW: Sure. If this was done fifty years from now, and String Theory had been debunked in favor of a new theory I think it would be appropriate to use that theory instead. Similarly, if this had been done 25 years ago we would be talking about the Big Bang. So, it is not dependent on String Theory, but it uses it as a reference to radical, contemporary science, as, again, a cultural symptom.

AO: This piece, along with others in the Frieze Projects, seem to be reaching out to a wider audience of the fair. To me audience participation is central to this work. How do you feel about working with the public, especially considering your comments (off record) that you make art work for the art world?

JW: The project really begins with that single person taking that tour with the String Theorist. But it also begins with that String Theorist taking that tour with the person. So, its based on this sort of singular experience. Moreover, it gets transcribed by a singular person, those words are then re-enacted by a singular person, and, finally, it is returned to a singular person. This idea of singularity is ever-present; the work begins with the viewer and then returns to the viewer.

In terms of making art for the art world, I think that this is really specific to the situation of my life. Art is the industry that I’m involved in, and therefore, the contact I have with people are mainly from this industry. So, often I think my audience, or my focal audience, are people involved in the art world. But I am not opposed to having the general public see the work. By no means am I interested in making my work exclusionary, but I also, by no means, am interested in neutralising my work so that it’s simply populistic.

AO: If we consider each single person involved in this grand project we become aware of the huge number of variables affecting the outcome. Ostensibly, there is also an element of chance occurrence, especially on the tours. Yet, you do exert some control, for instance, over what is transcribed, and what is added to these transcriptions, and also over the actors through your direction. How far do you think the work takes on a life of its own, and how far is it a personal construction, about you?

JW: Firstly, the inserts from the cultural histories, I specifically chose to only include things from the last thirty years, so that talks about my own life span, my generation. But, the project as a whole was also about setting up a system that I can’t have control over, and I am not interested in having control over. Though one recognizes that this work came from someone, that person doesn’t necessarily have to be me, it’s just that in this instance it is me, because I am the artist. Though there are autobiographical elements to it, it is by no means autobiographical. In this way, I think it again goes back to that idea of a singularity; the work comes from an idea from one person and that person in this case is me, just like any other artwork comes from that one person, or those artists working together.

AO: Thinking about the viewer in the re-enactments, again, what effect are you trying to have on them through your direction of the performers?

JW: I wasn’t particularly trying to get the viewer to feel anything. I was interested in looking at the re-enactments as a kind of exercise rather than as theatrical re-enactments. I thought that the best way to do that would be to implement very very formal instructions for the actors. The instructions were almost like the kind you would find on an amplifier or mixing board: to increase volume, to decrease volume; to increase sex, to decrease sex; to increase theatricality, to decrease theatricality. This was rather than telling someone “do it again, but do it like this…” or “do it again and this time put emotion into it.” I was just interested in the most basic controls, and through that in making a kind of translation. And it really wasn’t about the viewer feeling anything, in fact I think each person may have felt something very different.

AO: People know you for working in film or video – is there any element of these media in this work. You had, for instance, said before that you wanted the viewer to feel in the position of the camera. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

JW: Sure. I kept thinking of this idea of what it meant to look in a camera and look away from a camera. I realized by having the actors look directly at the viewer, then the viewer in a way became the camera. However, I think its problematic to simply say that the viewer becomes the camera, because photography is an artifice, and an extension of something else. Basically rather than it becoming a viewing experience, the reenactment became more an idea of receiving something. I told the actors to look directly at the viewer, in order that they be the total recipient of the work.

AO: Initially, this work feels very transient. The premise of the Frieze Projects, after all, were that they were site-specific. Do you feel this work has a life after Frieze?

JW: There is no difference really between this and a painting, except that it has different stipulations on its existence. A lot of institutions have been collecting live works for some time now, so what I am proposing is not some much radical as it is practical. It is not dependent on the Frieze Art Fair or String Theory, but it is dependent on the radical contemporary scientific theory of the day and insertions of the last 30 years of cultural history. So, in essence, this work can continuously develop and change in content – but retain its original form.

In terms of contexts, I’ve tested this work out at the Tate Modern and it had similar effects but different in that the participant and scientist were in a museum rather than an art fair. What was interesting at the Tate was that the participants explained to me that the artworks had lost their autonomy and become clumps of material. At Frieze, a participant commented that the conversation intensified the works…

In terms of a private collection there is no reason why the work couldn’t be remade within someone’s home with each family member and then re-enacted. There is not really a limitation for it, the limitation is just on the way people understand what an artwork is, which is a classic problem – but nonetheless interesting.

AO: Finally, we are at Tate and you have just been to see the new show Pop Life. Yesterday you mentioned that you see yourself as a Pop artist, can you explain this a little?

JW: I am very much part of a generation that grew up inundated by media – inundated by different textures of media: generations of video, developing technology, lots of different kinds of advertising, different uses of language, historical transitions, and etc. I think that one can’t really escape from popular culture these days. It has become less of a choice and more about something that is imprinted – so I am trying to deal with what it means to be from this time, and how to reconcile that; and how to reconcile all the different codes, and all the technologies, all the histories- but in the end I can only really do this from my perspective- and when you realize this you realize, that “my” perspective is actually part of a much larger perspective and we are all doing this together.

- Interview and photographs by Rowena Morgan-Cox