Artist, researcher, and A Strenuous Nonbeing brochure essayist Stephen Lichty is the first writer in Grand Arts’ history to deliver, ahead of the essay, a lengthy and painstakingly accurate transcript of conversations with the artist whose work he was writing about. Although this original transcript was never meant for publication, it contained a number of wonderful, revelatory exchanges between Baab and Lichty. It also indicted me as someone who doesn’t especially like cats. Despite this, I asked the two artists to revisit their conversation for Grand Arts’ blog, and they kindly obliged.
The following interview was conducted just before Baab’s solo exhibition at Grand Arts (SIDE A) and a few weeks after the exhibition’s opening (SIDE B). The conversation touches on some of the artists’ interests, influences, and practice. The parts about cat phobia and allergies have been excised for length.
A person isn’t always encouraged to look at art for a long time. Take Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista, for example. You don’t need to look at that for a long time. It was made to be consumed fast. That’s not the case here. Here, there’s a lot to look at.
I remember looking at Andy Warhol drawings with a teacher in New York City. It was the reason we were in New York City, It was the one show he wanted to see, and he saw the whole show in thirty seconds. He just walked by and kind of glanced at everything. I said, “what’s up, are you okay?” He said, ‘it was a great show, I’m just ready to go.’
Thirty seconds, just walking by. So, I think there are these weird exceptions with what we do – we give art more time than it needs, or less time.
Have you ever felt guilt, or anxiety about not being productive in art?
I used to harbor a lot of anxiety about not being productive, about not doing something worthwhile.
All the time. I don’t know where that comes from, but part of being an artist is making work and if I’m not making work I kind of feel like I’m wasting my time.
There’s no alternative to making work – it’s hard to think of doing something else. We discussed before that some of the most brilliant folks get out of art-making.
Some people want comfort, some people want security, some people want a relationship. You know, some people want a good job, a nice home, and I think with making art I feel like I’ve definitely had to make certain sacrifices to be able to have the time to do what I want to do.
Do you mean in interpersonal situations?
If you spend too much time in studio, then you’re not getting out enough, you’re not doing enough; you’re not seeing enough to begin to really cultivate a subject matter, to cultivate an idea. Think of studio in the traditional sense, like for me – think of studio as a cave. it’s where you produce. And you have to get out of the cave – you have experiences, you read things, you look at things – and when that stops you are just producing, and if you are just producing to produce, sometimes the work suffers as a result of that. It has for me.
I guess what I’m saying is when you are in studio all the time and you are making things all the time and you don’t have time to do all the other things in life you should be doing – you never have that time to leave and think about something and come back and be critical and see something thru another lens. That thing you thought was wonderful is wonderful, but it’s really not. Does that make sense?
It’s like allegory of the cave.
Sometimes, if people allow themselves to do the thing they shouldn’t be doing, it describes their unique offering to the world.
When you go to a place that is constructed specifically for work, you can go and you can work and you can work, work and work. You talk about that other aspect of being an artist, which is talking to people, scheduling shows, the professional side of making things, and studio isn’t that. When you’re in your studio, your studio tells you to work, it doesn’t tell you deadlines. I’m speaking for myself. It tells me to work, it doesn’t tell me when to finish, where it should go, whether it’s good or not, it just tells me to work.
Most of my work takes time. I take six months or so to make a piece, even though the work looks pretty fast. I usually only make a few things a year because it takes a lot of time. So, when I do have a studio, I clean the studio, I mop the floor, I put on music, I read something. Then I move the shelves. If I cut something, I clean up and put the thing I cut where I want it to be.
I like that. It’s maintenance. It’s your studio and you’ve got to keep the studio, studio.
The thing that is consistent, and that I’m proud of, is the shape of the studio. Come into my temple, this is how my house looks when I make all of the decisions!
I spend a lot of time here, and I’ve done a lot to make myself feel comfortable. I listen to a lot of music and take a lot of naps and walks. I have a fog machine that I’ll turn on sometimes to add ambiance. For two years I worked under black light. When I was in high school I turned my room into one giant collage; maybe that’s where these tendencies come from. Also, There’s something about incense. I burn a lot of frankincense and I burn a lot of champa.
Will you burn some?
Yeah. This stuff is really intense. Frankincense reminds me of being in church. I went to a Catholic church.
I went every week. I was a server.
Did you carry the front cross?
Yeah, did that.
Did you clean and wash the priests’ hands?
No, I never did that and I never did events. I never did funerals. But yeah, I don’t know what it is about incense, but I’ve been burning it for years and it really gets me in the zone (laughing).
How does this work [the incense]?
This is pretty much what the priest would do – this is charcoal and this is resin. What we’ll do is leave this open for a minute, and let it heat up, and then, when we have a lot of it, we’ll close it. This is really powerful if we leave it open to cook.
Music affects everything – it affects what I make – it affects the way things look. I can kind of tell what people listen to by the art they make. A friend of mine used to make fun of me all the time, ‘your work looks like metal album covers.’ and I’d say, “your work looks like Cat Power.” He does listen to Cat Power and he didn’t even tell me, you know? It’s funny. You can’t always, but sometimes.
There’s a band called, My Cat is an Alien.
I know that band.
Yeah, my cat is an alien, even though I’m familiar with it.
This session is going to be different because we don’t have any work in front of us to look at.
Are you having any postpartum depression from the show?
No. That’s what a couple of people mentioned – that I would get really depressed after the show. I got depressed before the show – not really depressed, but anxious. I haven’t had any problems since. I’ve been busy. Good things happening. School started, I’m teaching three classes. I’ve been putting together a lot of images – post-show stuff, working on the website and all that sort of stuff. It’s been good. I’ve been working in studio on some small works and thinking about ideas for two big projects. I’ve been pretty much occupied.
Big projects informed by what you’ve been working on?
My roommate and I have this idea to make a UFO. Also, I found some brochures in my hotel room during the weekend of the opening that I’m making work out of.
You mentioned that…
Yeah, I’ve been making collages out of these brochures. I’m really excited about them actually.
Is that the big project (laughing) ?
No, that’s the little project, the little stuff.
Do you follow alien research?
Alien stuff? No, I never really got that into sci-fi. My roommate is into that stuff. We were talking about Michael Ashkin’s work. He teaches at Cornell, makes beautiful cardboard models of things like prisons. He made this three dimensional version of an El Lissitzky painting.
We were talking about alien movies, what inspires the design of the UFO, and I found that really interesting. We were looking at pictures of spacecraft and UFO’s and I got really into looking at pictures of that stuff.
Are you looking up Ashkin’s work?
Yes. I like thinking about extremely small or non-anthropomorphic aliens, extraterrestrials that are either invisible forces or other-dimensional. I watched Prometheus recently.
I was actually thinking of Prometheus while we were having this conversation.
I recall some holographic data-blur representations of people running…
Kind of like Predator. Watching Prometheus was like watching a long Tool video.
I think I’ve seen more Tool T-shirts than videos in my life. (laughing)
There is this kind of music that I’m listening to…
Can you be more specific?
Dave Hickey gave a talk at SVA, The Good Ennui. (click for video: http://bit.ly/WD5sXv)
The music is kind of random commercial tunes that are released thru these anonymous names. Some of them don’t even have titles. It’s music that is maybe taken from commercials, taken from elevator music, kind of cut-up. I was thinking about this talk that Hickey gave on the sublime, The Good Ennui, a type of boredom that becomes almost transcendental.
The brochures from the hotel – they are pictures of your bedding, the linens, the towels, the plants in the hotel. And they’re kind of beautiful, boring, quaint – I’m cutting them up kind of like the decollage works. If you cut ‘em up just right, you don’t actually see objects, the subject matter, you don’t see things like towels and tables and windows, you see a flow of lines and information – it becomes very formal. That cat video, I was thinking a lot about that Warhol Empire piece, and that’s something that Hickey brings up. He talks about this kind of everyday content feeling, like listening to AM radio – sitting on the back porch – that kind of thing. And I’m not sure what all this means to me yet, but I’m sort of thinking about it a little bit and how it may or may not relate to the stuff that I’m looking at.
So, I’m watching it [the cat footage] and I want to find the moment when there’s the most activity – where the cats are doing the most, they’re active, I see a lot of them, they’re all playing with the sculpture, moving around. There’s this constant anticipation watching the video, thinking that something is going to happen, and nothing happens. Then something happens and it’s really nothing – it’s a cat just jumping. It’s weird how immersed you get in cats that do so little. You know what I mean?
Yesterday I watched a documentary on Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame; he described the beauty and pleasure of holding a character in the air before gravity sets in – setting up the gag and holding it for as long as possible before fulfilling the prophesy.
That’s so funny, I watched about two and a half hours of Looney Tunes a few days ago.
What did you watch?
I started by watching Bugs Bunny, and all of the episodes with the character Bugsy. Was that his name – the mafia gangster?
Bugs Bunny as another character?
No, a separate character… Mugsy, that’s it. But I was also watching a lot of Wylie Coyote and Roadrunner.
I was trying to think of a word to describe the characters on Looney Tunes. I thought of the word “light” in thinking about those scenes where the coyote is suspended for a minute and then falls. It’s funny that there’s always the aggressor or antagonist in the show, but then there’s another antagonist that is an inanimate object, or the ground, and it’s always so heavy and hard, while they’re so light and fluffy and malleable. It’s funny to me. There’s a really good essay by Sianne Ngai, The Cuteness of the Avant Garde, that talks about dolls and how dolls and toys are designed so they can be crushed and immediately pop-back into form.
That’s special stuff. Looking back on it for the first time – for me anyway – some of the techniques they [Looney Tunes] use to break the third wall are amazing – characters getting chased around by animator’s erasers. They set up this antagonism – between the characters and the studio, which I believe echoed subtle antagonisms between the cartoon directors and the studio.
What do you mean by studio?
Warner Brothers Studio.
Some of the messages in Looney Tunes are pretty antagonistic, but coded with humor. That was a surprise looking back on the cartoons. Can we discuss humor and fantasy in your own work?
I think there is definitely a humor introduced to the work by the cats and that apparent connection to cat furniture. Some of the work in the show poses as this austere modern utopian machine-like object, and when you put these objects with cats, they lose their monumentality.
In poratrix seperates, I think I see carpet on the floor that has been vacuumed kind of haphazardly – is that what you see?
It’s actually rubber and it’s a dancefloor.
The floor has taken on some dust?
Yeah there are footprints on it.
I misread the image, seeing the way light would bounce off differentially vacuumed carpet. The detail made me laugh out loud.
They deflate the work. The vacuum lines, the cats, the context.
Is there anything you feel people haven’t talked about regarding the work? Something that’s been missed? Sometimes an artist holds secrets.
I had an idea that I don’t think came up very much in conversation that I’m still trying to flesh out myself – two ideas that I think are linked. One has to do with the idea of a machine – of a machine as a sort of spirit, as a picture, as a kind of attitude. The machine, I think, is somewhat in line with Modernism – a way to be, a way to act, a way to structure things.
Are you referring to industrial-revolution style machinery, or machination in general?
I mean a machine as an object. You think of the Internet, for instance. It’s a difficult example of a machine because so many of its components are not visible. We can see images that it produces, but as a machine it’s so difficult to see. We think of locomotives as a machine. We think of airplanes as a machine, the supercollider. But the idea of a type of future that we can attach an image to, that we can attach an icon to, really interests me.
Let’s talk about portability – I’m not exactly sure why but the video stream is more portable for me than the other work. The video is easier to describe. It’s on-topic.
It’s easy to talk about. People like to hear about it. It’s easier to describe than any single image. If it were described by a number of different people, I think it would be described in pretty much the same way. That is different than the photographs. That’s part of it – as a set of words, it can travel, it is functional. It is machine-like – it functions. There is a structure, there are animals, there is a camera, and we kind of already know that and we understand it, and that’s shared, so the piece is easy to imagine.
Well, what about the fact that the work is more close to the present than the pictures are? Not sure if that’s a fact, but… the pictures occurred for a moment, unknown, but the video was a live stream. People asked me, is this something that’s going to occur for the duration of the show – are these cats going to remain for the duration of the show? And you watch the video and I would think that one might presume that could occur – that that could continue, and it makes it portable because it is continuing to happen. After you are away from it, it is continuing.
Somehow, photography asks to be looked at while video, here, doesn’t need us. With photography you present a single moment in time-space and foreground that – those photographs are monumental in that way, a kind of creme de la creme of time-space and architecture. But watching the video and the cats on it was a little bit closer to how I experienced the floodgate we went to, for example, near Kaw Point. It’s about hanging out.
Yeah. I’m sometimes, with this work, thinking about how photography, video and painting simultaneously show and conceal. It has a front and it has a back, whereas, with a sculpture…
…you get to touch more faces.
I’m kind of interested in this idea right now – the idea of a photo that doesn’t have a front and a back, or even maybe a side, if possible. Another thing that never really came up is the decollage works as something between a sculptural object and a picture, a relief.
I experience historical relief as an enhanced representational technique. The omnipresent, n-th dimensional photography you are referring to, somehow strives to go beyond representation. If you have a photograph that has no front, back or sides, you have a seeing sculpture.
A seeing sculpture? Those attributes that we assign to photography pertaining to the gaze, or seeing back, or being assertive would become the things that translate toward… so it would be a sculpture basically.
I want the McCracken plinth to be cognoscente, aware, smart, to see. It’s also kind of terrifying – it would be terrifying to have a photograph that didn’t have a front or back or sides.
Yeah, when I was building the sculpture I thought a lot about the panopticon. Did we talk about that?
No, but I can see that.
It’s kind of like Cubism in a way, but not as a representation of the subject, but rather a declaration of media.
What is like Cubism?
This idea of omnipresence in art. The idea of being able to see things from multiple places at once.
I want to point to an excerpt from a book called The Media Archive by Adilkno, published by Autonomedia, the book is very rich – the excerpt has something to do with everything becoming media.
Media became global and universal. Just as God was spread across continents by missionaries and crusades, and humans were later held responsible for all the abundance and misery in the world, so the media are now omnipresent. Every place is instantaneously represented everywhere via satellite and fiberglass; a global view is the only international perspective that remains. At the same time, every object
has the capacity to become a medium. Clothes, crockery, furniture, the city have become the media of a national politico-sexual identity and Zeitgeist. They are the thermometers of mental states. Trees inform us about wind force and environmental pollution. Everything transmits meaning; everything provides us with information about something other than itself. Where before there were objects, now there is information. There exists no other reality except as media.
Already, there are signs of a movement that, out of pure enthusiasm for an image-free society, will reintroduce socialism as a ban on images to be included in the declaration of universal human rights based on Judeo-Islamic Scripture. Just as the death of God rendered religion a private affair, so the image will become a matter of personal experience which, at best, will organize itself into secret societies of heretical mediatists. The implosion of reality in the media has been adequately recorded and proclaimed. The ban on images will cause a chain reaction: the descent of the media into reality. We will be amazed to find ourselves back in a world full of objects that no longer exude messages.
Socialism, unwarranted by historical-materialist laws, will establish itself in the emptiness of the postmedial era. An object-orientated communism will reign in an image-free society.
When was this written? After hearing that the idea of using photography as a medium seems silly. So many possibilities.
1998. But your photography pushes back at the assumptions about photography. It is precarious and pretty up-front about that. I don’t feel like the work you have exhibited is so much of a celebration for capturing life through photography.
I watched Jurassic Park last night – it was amazing. Have you watched that recently?
No, but a friend told me that currently, salmon are being crossbred with eel because the hybrid grows much faster. When asked how to keep the genetically modified fish from entering natural habitats, the representative said not to worry because they had engineered the species to be only female (laughing). The Jurassic Park argument. Life will find a way!
Anthony Baab is a Kansas City-based artist. After receiving his BFA in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2004, Baab went on to study interdisciplinary art at Cornell University, graduating in 2009 with his MFA. Baab’s works have been shown frequently, including exhibitions at Tompkins Projects in Brooklyn, NY, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, KS, The Dolphin in Kansas City, MO, and at the Cornell University College of Architecture and Art. In 2006 Baab was a recipient of the Charlotte Street Foundation Award. His work is in the collections of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS, and the Microsoft Art Collection in Richmond, WA.
Stephen Lichty is an artist based in New York. His sculptures have been exhibited at Jack Chiles and Foxy Production in New York (2012), New Capital in Chicago (2012) and Frutta in Rome (2012). Recent performances include Special Effects at ODC in San Francisco (2012) and Ribbon Dance in a Thunderstorm at Sunset at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York (2012).