Brian Getnick in Conversation with Will Rawls

Angeleno, Brian Getnick reconnects with Will Rawls to outline his network of exciting projects, in which his sculptural and curatorial works create dynamic frames for other performance artists. Co-director (with Tanya Rubbak) of the collaborative L.A. performance journal, Native Strategies, and performer himself, Brian also extends his sights from L.A. to New York and Berlin, tilling the soils and sinkholes of aspirational performance culture.


Brian Getnick, The Pest Horse, performed with Bryatt Bryant, 2013, Station Independant Projects photo: Cameron Blaylock

Will Rawls: Hi Brian

Brian Getnick: Hi Will

WR: Welcome to New York.

BG: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

WR: I’m just curious to know what brought you to L.A. in the first place and what you encountered once you got there?

BG: By the way, in this conversation, are you interested in Los Angeles as a performance culture compared to other performance cultures in Berlin and New York?

WR: Sure.

BG: Maybe a portion of this could be a bit of a dialogue because you have participated in performance culture in New York and Berlin far more than I have. I’m curious about Los Angeles in relationship to those two cities because I say a lot of things about L.A. performance culture and the more I say, the more I realize that it shouldn’t be talked about as universal. It should be talked about relationally to geography and place because we’re talking about bodies that have a life span shorter than objects–things that travel in art fairs and where you get a notion of international cohesion. I think performance art, because it’s performance art–and it needs that “art” in “performance art” in order to be itself–has inherited that notion of universality.

WR: Can you clarify “in order to be itself”?

BG: The "art" in performance art tells you that the performance in question can potentially use the fields of dance, theater, sculpture, sound, comedy, puppetry as subjects, not simply given modes of address. Endurance or time-based performances–those modalities most concerned with "reality effects"–are, again, potential subjects; they do not totalize the field of "performance art". We know this because artists at present will switch between all these fields in a single given piece. The stages take the stage in other words.

When I got to Los Angeles I was immediately swept up into the queer nightlife. And at the time in 2007, Downtown was, I wouldn’t say a ghost town, but there was a failed gentrification project that didn’t take off–lots of empty space. And lots of people throwing huge fucking parties in these warehouses and places. This is harder to do now.

WR: It’s sort of sad that my first thought about a failed gentrification project in Downtown L.A. is a coffee table book about it. It’s a way of gentrifying that failure.

BG: It’s a way of gentrifying a coffee table. [both laugh]

The reason it failed was the reason that L.A. was so inspiring to me. Here you have Downtown L.A. and its this flux of developers trying to get people to come in there and work there without the infrastructure or cafes to support it. Neighboring it is Skid Row, an enormous, self-sustaining community. People go there to be there. They come there from other parts of the city to get services.

WR: What kind of services?

BG: Food, housing, medical, psychological. I’m just gonna give a shout out to the LAPD, the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a long-running performance and theater group founded by John Malpede. It’s made entirely of people who are homeless or formerly homeless. There’s an incredible community there that does not really rhyme with the gentrification model that the developers had in mind. There’s a tidal flow at night, from that community into Downtown and then back again in the morning. And this is intertwined with and flows around the Garment District, The Jewelry District, the Toy District, The Piñata District, The Flower District. I've found so much costume material there, so much inspiration from the way people attire themselves down there.

Also there’s a tradition in Los Angeles of having a performance based sculptural practice. Jason Rhodes, Johanna Went, Paul McCarthy to name a few. I think this is my specific lineage as a sculptor, someone who activates sculpture in the performative arena. The impulse was: I’m gonna get your eyes on my sculpture for twenty minutes because I’m inside of it and you’re watching me perform its making and un-making.

Brian Getnick, Memories, 2012, Mural by Sean Sullivan, LACE
photo: Jorge Espinosa

WR: The un-making of your sculptures is something that runs through all of the work that I’ve seen. Sculptures that have taken the form of theaters, bodies and animals that are decaying, erupting and animated at the same time. Can you talk about how you found your way there and if this trajectory was also influenced by being in L.A.?

BG: I’ve lately been thinking about both Los Angeles and my upbringing in rural Upstate New York as the two major aesthetic poles in my work. When you’re in Upstate you see the aesthetic of tidy piles of things under tarps and bound up with rope and chains. Seeing these things accounts partially for the allowances that I make for decay in my work. I like looking at things that are torn or partially decomposed. I like the formal effects that result when a thing's been damaged slightly, decayed, neglected, picked up and used again. It becomes more Baroque.

WR: It has a relationship to weather and the four seasons, shoring things up for rain and snow.

BG: Hardiness. Picking up the trash and finding out what is the trash and what is not the trash.

In Los Angeles I was coming across wig hair, sequins that are falling apart et cetera. These ended up being bound into those tidy piles that are my costumes. And there is a hardiness that I want out of my work; it’s going to withstand somebody like Alice Cunt working inside of it. And it’s going to last for years as I work on it, and repair it, so I’ve got to get my stitches right. I’m going to use wood and wire. It’s not going to be made out of duct tape.

WR: Where did you learn textiles or these approaches to working with materials?

BG: I went to the fiber and materials studies department at SAIC [School of the Art institute of Chicago] but it’s funny, I picked up fabric while I was there. I was drawing and then I made sculpture at the very end of the process. But I was mentored by people like Anne Wilson who was using human hair to repair moth-eaten family heirloom cloths. The hair was both destroying and making it more disgusting and also literally repairing it. Also Joan Davidson, whose felted funnel pieces, dripping honey or melted plastic were inspiring for their abject gorgeousness.

WR: And so in L.A. you were working with queer materials?

BG: I’m not sure if it’s productive to call them queer materials–I learned a vernacular of material from the queer community. I was making costumes for performers like Leopold Nunan Suarez and Alice Cunt. I dropped sculpture for a little bit and just made costumes and learned to dance.

[both laugh]

WR:  As you’ve settled into L.A. and have begun to show your work, which communities have become your audience?

BG: Well my audience is primarily the art community, and that’s enormous and varied in Los Angeles. In 2011, I started curating through Native Strategies, a collaboration with my friend Tanya Rubbak. So the audience is really all these different art communities, these performing communities.

WR: Native Strategies is a journal that documents the performing communities in L.A.

Native Strategies co-directors, Tanya Rubbak (left) and Brian Getnick (center), Guest curator, Jules Gimbrone (right)
photo: Jeremy Oversier

BG: It’s a platform that uses journals as one way of creating encounters between disparate communities. But recently, Tanya, myself and the co-curator on Native Strategies #5, Music Issues, Jules Gimbrone, created an installation out of the Native Strategies model that was basically a three-dimensional book designed by Tanya. You could walk into it and see all the stages of production simultaneously. You could see performers working together behind the scrim, you could see the content being edited and then you saw a dispersion area with finished journals and a live feed. We tapped Jules because they are an experimental composer who, in their own work, activates sculptural objects in a room and sometimes uses people as instruments–it’s a very performative relationship to composition.  Jules knows an enormous community of experimental composers, so they provided almost half the roster of those musicians.

WR: And during the Music Issues event at LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions] you had the beautiful object Tanya designed but, also, you saw the live encounter of different artists around a theme.

BG: The journal is themed around pre-existent performance practices in Los Angeles. We’re choosing the ten, in our opinion, most salient ways of working performatively in Los Angeles. We did an issue on dance, as you know. We did an issue on satire and humor, one on rituals and congregations. We have one coming up on theater. The one you have now is on social practice. We have one called LGBTQIP which is about LesbianGayBisexualTransQueerIntersex-

WR: [laughs] Wait, what’s P?

BG: Performance.

WR: The other gender. So is this 3-D designed book-room representing a shift in how Native Strategies is encountering people?

BG: Tanya has been my collaborator since the 2nd issue. She’s from Ukraine and she’s taken a look backwards at Constructivists, or early Soviet avant-garde’s intersection with early performance. She is making the case that, in a way, they’re inextricable. The creation of documents and performative activity are completely inter-related and necessary to each other. The suggestion that the creation of documents is anathema to the live event is an essentialist's notion of performance.

In fact, it's simply a different temporal reality. If a performance is a body entering into a space issuing a communication and that communication is being received and responded to, well the document is exactly this but it just takes place in a different temporal relationship–it is not measured by bodies entering and exiting the room but it does reach the ears and the eyes of the reader. At a certain point, it hits its mark. It’s still a performative activity. So we’re now experimenting with ways of making documents as arenas for encounter and as performative events.

Claire Cronin (left) and Dorian Wood (right) performing and interviewing each other for NS #5
photo: Jeremy Oversier

WR: I find that there is pull and sway between performance events in New York and L.A now. More than I realized or felt when I first moved to New York. I didn’t go to L.A. until 2011. On that first trip to L.A. one of the more incredible things I saw was with you in–what would you call that bar?

BG: Did we go to The Palms?

WR: Yeah, where they were selling cassette tapes and serving–there was definitely a selection of tapes on sale that were dubbed from albums released only before 1993. JMY James Kidd and Julie Tolentino performed that night.

I experienced more weird in ten days in L.A. than I had in New York in a really long time. While there, I got this image that performers are there because they want to be there and not so much because they have to be there. Because, as you’ve said to me, the infrastructure for plucking stars out of the rough and turning them into diamonds in not fully in place in the same way that it is perceived to be in New York. To say it in a short way, people don’t move to Los Angeles to become famous.

BG: [laughs]

WR: If you’re an actor you do. If you’re a performance artist you don’t. In L.A., there was a sense of time where, perhaps, I could work faster or more slowly depending on my own wishes and not so much dictated by making money.

BG: Let’s talk about the diamond in the rough.

WR: Sure.

BG: I’m familiar with the rough. What is the diamond for a performer? For a performance artist? What are the diamonds?

WR: I think there are many jewels in the setting. Certainly in New York the diamond can be anything from getting a show to receiving a Doris Duke foundation grant, which is $250,000. As museological practice moves into dance or as dance moves into it, there is the diamond of different visibility and maybe perpetuity. But in New York, visibility is often confused with sustainability, growth, and maturity in your art. Whether it can shine bright like a diamond and stand the test of time is a question that remains to be seen. Whether you get a show at The Kitchen, or Dixon Place or the MoMA, what are you making and why? What is the voice of the work inside of those venues? Being seen is crucial but sometime I wonder if a work or a venue is actually shining a light on anything but its own exposure?

BG: I was thinking about the words aspiration and inspiration in relation to what you’re talking about. And I was also thinking about Clement Greenberg’s definition of kitsch, which is about work that apes the effects, versus the processes, of art. The patina of achievement that a museum imparts on things that are shown within it and the effect of this within the art community–it becomes aspirational to perform at MoMA or at The Whitney.  What happens when you aspire? You aspire to be that pre-existent thing. You ape the model. “This was accepted here, what do I need to do to achieve that?” Instead of, "what are the processes behind it that allow me to improve?"–which is inspiration.

The Hammer recently had a Made in L.A. show which is sort of our version of The Whitney [Biennial]. It was good this year; they had a lot of performances and collectives represented. But at the same time they awarded a cash prize and this is not good. This sets up the aspirational model. I don’t think you do any favors to a community of artists by offering diamonds to win. Institution should be mining artists' research and making connections between their works and other fields of thought. They do this for all other objects. Not for performers. If you enter that museum you ought to enter that museum with the expectation of rigorous scrutiny. The museum should offer up to the performance artist exactly what they offer up to any other object of so called quality–an intense and rich research into its processes. And then un-archive that: Give that back. That would be a useful function of the museum in the performance community.

WR: With dance there’s a whole set of vocabularies, ways of looking, ways of acknowledging or perceiving movement, how or from where movement initiating, that brings a whole set of formal qualities and meaning to a performance that is somewhat rarely talked about in museological practice. I see very little text about where movement is coming from that would perhaps mirror the recent exhibition about Gauguin’s work at the MoMA, which reinterprets the origins of his prints and paintings. The context around that show erodes or troubles an outmoded sense of his artistic progression and branches it into other directions.

I’d be curious to see more dance historians become part of curatorial teams at museums–an experiment in giving language to movement.

BG: God that’d be great.

WR: You were talking about the aspirational but did we talk about the inspirational? The first time you mentioned the inspirational to me was this May, in Berlin.

BG: Inspiration is a humming question mark. “What is this? I must know.” It’s this productive methodology, a spark to go forward. You can’t be the thing that got into the museum. You can try to aspire to be that but you will never be that particular thing.

I was inspired by your dance that you did at the Chocolate Factory. I don’t know how it was going to emerge in my practice but I don’t aspire to dance like you. When the inspiration comes out it won't look like your dance.

It’s very inspiring to be in Los Angeles. Maybe because there’s less to aspire to. Maybe there’s a ratio of aspiration-to-inspiration per city. L.A.’s certainly higher on the inspiration. Less diamonds, more coal. I don’t know about New York, I don’t know about Berlin.

WR: I lived in Berlin for four and a half months. And I went there to be a hermit. I had neither inspiration nor aspiration to be there beyond the fact it was cheap so I could afford to bring my New York aspirational, inspirational, workaholic self with me and plow through a ton of research. But I also connected with artists there in a deep way because there was time to do so. People who are very serious about their performance work.

Time in Berlin is for me perhaps it’s best commodity. You can wake up at ten in the morning, have a three hour coffee-brunch-lunch, work for six hours, take a nap, have dinner, go out until four in the morning and do it over again, and you’ve still got six hours of sleep. That’s a beautiful thing. People arrive in Berlin with a lot of talent, ideas, hope and encounter some great art, research and social institutions, like Haus der Kultur der Welt. But I think that the aspirational immigrants to Berlin meet up with Berlin’s aspiration to renew itself, and there’s a gap there. It touts itself as an artist’s haven but it still has a large European dance company model where large companies will take up 50 per cent or more of the city’s dance funding and everyone else is left to scramble for the rest. The recent inauguration of the Berlin Art Prize is based on the establishment’s assumption that visual artists now have the luxury to produce high quality work without necessarily fertilizing the root structure of the city. The housing stock is being bought up by foreign investors and rented through Air BnB and so now it’s hard to get an apartment in Berlin. Studios are near impossible too. So the aspiration of living in Berlin meets the exasperation of being there. But because time is profoundly fluid and generous there I think there is a direct relationship between the amount of time you have and the identity you can play with and create. Whether or not that produces good art, or exciting art or inspirational art is another issue. But I do find that the people in and of themselves, the queer community especially, are forward thinking, really pervasive. There’s an applied liberalism in Berlin that enables space for queer lifestyle. And the people, what they wear and how they congregate are very inspired.

BG: It’s so intensely pleasure oriented but also intellectual. The circulation and quality of your conversations everyday. It’s philosophically engaging. They’ve all read Hegel by the time they were eight years old.

[both laugh]

It’s what it’s always offered any artist from the United States. There you are confronted with the clash of extremely new and very, very old. And Berlin’s relationship to it’s past is the most interesting thing about that place. L.A. and New York are dynamic, in part because we had this massive immigration. I think about Berlin’s connection to our avant-garde, the avant-garde in a trans-migration. As a result I think about the fragility of the avant-garde in Berlin.

WR: There is a fragility to the experimental performance scene there. But I think that since 1989 it has been slowly remaking itself, going more and more public in the face of different art consumer habits. There’s still a “squatters” feeling to living there, and some artist take this up as part of their community identity, a local rhizome with a come-and-find me vibe. It’s a dense performance culture because there is other performance work that circulates with a critique about the flow of capital. Am thinking about the work of Dragana Bulut. Her staged auction, Pass it on, is a choreography in which she negotiates not only the price but also the symbolic value of the objects she sells. She invents the auction with the spectators.

I do want to talk about PAM.

BG: She would love to talk about herself.

WR: She seems like another project in which you are exploring and exposing the value of L.A. performance both by providing artists with resources and then by weaving these interactions into the material of your sculptures. So, who’s PAM?

BG: PAM is the theater inside the studio in Highland Park. It’s an evolving sculpture that takes its cues from the performers that have residencies there. I give the space over to performance artists who are approaching aspects of the theater in their work. They produce about four shows over two nights. PAM accommodates about thirty people per show. I wanted to give artists a space to consider the fullness of their work, to refine their practice–and three weeks isn’t enough to completely do that but it’s more than anything offered in the city at this moment in terms of making work in the same place that you will perform it. I wanted artists to have a relationship to the space and then I respond sculpturally to their practices by changing the way that the theater is built. I have a movable wall that is a curtain rig; I have a mirror that is mobile. I’m building very slowly. As each resident creates installations, I keep adjusting the room. In the spring I’m going to move towards completing the theater or making it a fully developed sculptural form. And that will change the tone of the residency.

Hanna Heller in Actress Fury, with Jennie Mary Tai Liu and Alexa Weir, PAM
photo: Brian Getnick

It will be more about reactivating an object that was sculpted through performative activity. So, in a way, PAM is a synthesis of my costumes, objects evolving in relation to the bodies that were inside of it, and of Native Strategies, which is about studying the work and practices of other artists. I now understand another impulse behind starting Native Strategies, which is not only to research other artistic research but also to become a better performer myself. I wanted to give myself that inspiring span of different ideologies and methods.

I want artists working in PAM to consider the architecture as having a voice, as being alive. PAM has certain things that are fixed, that the artists have to contend with. They can’t move the theater rigging out. They can’t change the color. It’s entirely blue.

WR: Why blue?

BG: Because I’m in my blue period.

[both laugh]

I just started making everything blue last summer.

WR: When you move out of your blue period will PAM move with you?

BG: I don’t think so. PAM is going to stay blue.  I just pick up new colors; I don’t put them down. I’m still making things that are red, and green from 2012 and 2013 respectively. This year, I started making things that are blue.

WR: What does PAM stand for?

BG: It’s a name. It’s her name.

WR: It’s not an acronym?

BG: JMY James Kidd started Pieter down the street in Lincoln Heights. And I think I got permission in my brain to name a space after a person, to give it a character.

And also subconsciously I was thinking: Pieter PAM.

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Anne Wilson, Berlin, Brian Getnick, dance, Dragan Bulut, Joan Davidson, Jules Gimbrone, los angeles, Losa Angeles Poverty Department, New York, PAM, performance art, Tanya Rubbak, Will Rawls

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Will Rawls

Will Rawls is a choreographer, performer and writer based in New York City. His work investigates the formal and affective displacements of identity inherent in a non-disciplinary art practice. His pr...
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