Site/Work/S FORUM, June 3, 2000
John Davidson (Moderator), with Stephen Fox, Surpik Angelini, Tracy Hicks, The Art Guys, and Cameron Armstrong
Site/Work/S: A project for the 18th International Sculpture Conference - Houston 2000, co-sponsored by Houston Sculpture 2000, The Rice Design Alliance and Texas Architect magazine, under the auspices of the Art League of Houston.
In recent decades, Houston artists have manipulated and even systematically destroyed numerous sites to create settings for interaction and performance, for social and spiritual rituals. The Site/Work/S Forum (June 3, 2000) sought both the meaning of these works, and the paradox of their appearance in Houston, by engaging artists, architects, historians and the general public in a common discussion about the city and its monuments.
:: Surpik Angelini, an artist, architect, curator, writer and the Director of the TransArt Foundation;
:: Cameron Armstrong, Director of Site/Work/S.
:: The Art Guys, Jack Massing and Michael Galbreath;
:: John Davidson (Moderator), a writer and a journalist now covering art and culture for the San Antonio Star, and recent past Editor of Texas Architect magazine;
:: Stephen Fox, architectural historian and a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas, and author of the American Institute of Architects' Architectural Guidebook to Houston and numerous other books, publications and articles;
:: Tracy Hicks, an artist, writer and educator, and Site/Work/S artist;
John: Actually, I have a question to carry over from our lunch together yesterday. We were talking about monuments and who has a right to make them. My question is: who is charged with that role? Based on what we're seeing in Houston, it would seem that it's the artist who takes it on, and I'm wondering is that right? Do artists, just on their own, have the right to make monuments?
Michael: In Houston, they do. It's not some entitlement, they're just the ones who'll take it on. And, being artists, they do it independently - so in terms of the city and community life, they often seem to be making interventions. But there's also a whole category of large scale work like Jeff McKissic's Orange Show, for instance, where the artist didn't even think of himself as an artist. They're eccentric thinkers or whatever and they launch off in their own direction and make things that turn out to be symbolic and monumental and meaningful to people. We have no zoning or other planning controls, and I think that's conducive to making places like TemplO and Notsuoh. It's like no one is even interested in stopping us.
Jack: But those are different types of monuments, and maybe they're unusual. I think the majority of monuments come through some sort of civic action. And then artists are hired to fashion them or to make them. I think we're talking about art sites more than monuments.
Cameron: Well, these questions began with the sense that Houston, like any city, has the need for objects or places - let's call them monuments -- that bring people back to themselves, to a self-awareness of their social context. This Spring, I came to recognize how the Site Works all make ways for the community to come back to itself. For instance, if you look at Project Row Houses you see a collection of abandoned houses brought back to life, almost as a ritualized activity, to become a setting for social and art activities which take place literally as performances of community. It's as if the basic functioning and interacting of the mothers that live there, the artists making installations, and the sponsor groups have become a monumental foreground in the guise of this performance. At Notsuoh, you have a place where it seems that the past of Houston, all the junk and discards, show up as a record that can be re-inhabited. It's the history of Houston as seen from a certain place - actually, as seen from that specific place, because most of the material was actually found there in the building. Jim Pirtle has talked about his sense of finding or claiming Notsuoh as an installation ready-made. Anyways, it's Houston's past: looked at, turned around, and brought back to itself. Maybe we should rethink the definition of what a monument is again, because when you actually look at TemplO, or Notsuoh or The Artery you see the same thing -- they all set up an engagement of people in self-conscious, performative activities. Houston's public monuments and "official" statuary just don't function like that -- for one thing, they don't generate constituencies. No one cares about them.
Michael: I like these homegrown monuments. You remember we were having dinner the other week and we were talking about the intersection of Montrose and Westheimer -- and it couldn't be a more innocuous looking intersection. I mean it is anywhere USA with, you know, a Stop and Go on the corner and with a Blockbuster Video. But it is still a marking place, for immediate historical reasons because of the community there, and people put up these little monuments -- like when Princess Diana died there was this pile of flowers. And on Memorial day there were all those little flags there. You had some people just on their own, self-designated as the ones who were to up all these little flags - so the idea of the monument in Houston is just not static. But the process involved [in making these things] points to the questions of what is art and what is a monument? Is it the painting on the wall, or the object? Or is it the process by which it was made?
Cameron: Well, people say all the time to Rick [Lowe] and to Jim [Pirtle], "You know, you are not making art anymore." And through looking at this process and trying to understand the Site Works, I have come to react pretty strongly against that. I mean look at Notsuoh and TemplO: if that isn't art, I don't know what is now. But I'm also getting to the point where I think: if that's not a true definition of what a civic monument is, I don't know what a monument is either.
Fox: What I think is so intriguing about Houston as a case study is that it's a place with a very weak constituency for the collective memory embodied in the "hero on the horse" kind of object -- in fact there's only one such sculpture in the entire city. So, it's like Houston artists have taken it upon themselves to invent a new kind of tradition of public sculpture that fulfills a commemorative function, often commemorating things that the civic elites would try to deny. Which is, of course, like 99% of Houston: the reality of industry and decay and waste. I'm reminded of the Menil Collection's exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg's early work of the 1950s, mostly made from the junk of the petro-chemical complex, and of its powerful sense of subversion and threat -- it was difficult art for many people even in 1990. Since the 1950's, Jim Love has likewise made a very distinctive art out of oil industry cast-offs. With Jim, and others like Jesse Lott, Sharon Kopriva, Luis Jimenez and also with people like Jeff McKissic, the creator of the Orange Show, you see the growth of this Houston sensibility which, with Mel Chin's Seven Wonders, the extraordinary towers sited along the Buffalo Bayou by Wortham Theater, has now come to thoroughly contaminate the genre of official monumental civic art. What I find so provocative about the Site Works is the way in which the artists have taken the material they found throughout Houston in the wastage of demolition, obsolescence and decay, and have made it visible - maybe not in ways palatable to people primarily concerned with good taste or civic representation, but certainly in forms that bear compelling witness to the city and to life within it during the last century.
Surpik: I guess what makes these works so evocative is the way the artists are responding to the pace of change here, the quickness with which we discard ideas, discard buildings, discard everything around us. The ephemerality of Houston artists' works, the idea of producing monuments as performative contexts that change as people change, the idea of making these almost invisible works that are remembered by people because of their passing, has really impacted the community with actions that have persisted mostly in our imaginary. And to me that inscription of shared experience in our memories is Houston's idea of monument.
John: So, I've got another question: Are there any successful official monuments in Houston? Would you say that there are any that work?
Stephen: The Astrodome. Successful, public, civic monuments that are official? Well, the Astrodome.
Jack: Yeah, I would say the Astrodome is one.
John: But have the Houston elites put up a traditional type of monument that really works? What would you say, Steven -- official monuments?
Stephen: I think there are some extraordinarily beautiful works of public sculpture in downtown Houston. Pieces by Louise Nevelson, Claus Oldenburg, Joan Miro, DuBuffet. They occupy space in the same way the hero on the horse does. What they lack is a constituency. And again, what is so intriguing about projects like the Site Works is that they develop a constituency and build a public in a way that doesn't fit with these traditional categories. And, of course the Art Guys do it too, relating perhaps more commercial culture. But, it does seem a little peculiar that you [Jack and Michael] are here raising these questions about the limits and boundaries of art and monumentality.
Jack: Well, I do think that the DuBuffets and the Miros have a constituency, but they are not active. We did some interviewing downtown asking people what art was and pretty much everybody who interacts with downtown understands that those are monuments as well as sculptures. The people there might not have the language to describe them that way, but they all have an opinion. It's not manifest in any dialogue, and it's not the constituency that you are talking of which is built up through a process of interactivity -- like at the Orange Show and Project Row Houses, a hands-on interactive thing Stephen: It's just that Row Houses has a whole other kind of heroism to it.
Jack: But I'm not thinking of these pieces downtown as social construction. Questions of taste and style and artistic questions are different from social construction around issues like parenting, for instance, which is a different level of engagement altogether.
Tracy: Does the language of monuments change? The Sam Houston statue in Hermann Park shares is in a so-called traditional language but no one seems to respond to it very strongly any more. Maybe new techniques or new kinds of monuments are needed that are relevant to a community. It might seem strange to think of Row Houses or Notsuoh as monuments. But if that's our language, perhaps those are our monuments.
Cameron: Well it's worth talking about transformations. For instance, the Orange Show began as what you might think of as a piece of folk art, but eventually it was taken up by people interested in art and now it's the source of the Art Car Parade and many, many other events. It's not a piece of folk art now, if it ever was, but is very much an institution and an official kind of monument now.
Michael: When I think of official monuments I have a feeling of meanings being imposed and a certain amount of rigidity. For instance, it's hard to imagine The Alamo as a twentieth century monument but, as I understand it, it didn't become a big time official monument until the 1920's when San Antonio was being flooded with Mexican immigrants as a result of the Mexican Revolution. Only then did they choose to remember The Alamo.
Cameron: So maybe what is a successful monument is really a question about constituencies. There was certainly something that the statues of the man on a horseback fulfilled very directly once upon a time, and I guess this applies to The Alamo as well, even if it was only endorsing power structures. It seems that as Row Houses and the other Site Works keep growing, they more and more take on the larger functions of monuments, the making of those moments when people are together with each other and understanding themselves. One of the things Mark Monroe has commented on was how much his piece, Hero House Tower, which he just completed for Site/Work/S, the tower piece which I showed a slide of, changed [during construction] -- how much the community input affected it. And I think that's really typical of the Site Works, and the effects go both ways. With a place like the Row Houses that actually combines social services with visual artwork and installations right in the neighborhood, peoples' lives are changed and that effect just carries on further and further into the community. So in terms of what is a monument in Houston now, I put it towards the top of the list.
Surpik: Again, I think it's all related to how we regard language. In a way, the whole city is an inscription of language. And one of the more important things an artist does is to inscribe the very things that are not in some literal, written text -- everyday life being one of them. So, as the language shifts from old fashioned statuary to the kind of performative site works we're talking about, there's the possibility of seeing things realized that are not yet textualized in our daily life. And I think Houston really poses that kind of challenge and for that reason I believe that the artist will more and more become an ethnographer in the future, just like a critic will become more of an ethnographer because in this day and age with all of this multi-cultural and global world that we live in, those bits and pieces of information of specific reality, become more and more prized. So, our attitude is not so much to address the text of art history, but to express those things in the city and in our lives that otherwise wouldn't be expressed.
John: To say what wouldn't be said otherwise.
Surpik: Exactly, I mean I think that it is up to us artists to make those definitions, to articulate that language. More and more, I think that the artist is becoming the entrepreneur, is becoming the art critic, is thinking of ways of inscribing these experiences in their own text. And it's a challenge for us to [find names for it] It's a challenge for us to find the proper etiology for the kind of experiences that Cameron is talking about. Nobody is going to do it for us. And, in Houston, I think there is a particular kind of freedom and a sense of entrepreneurship in the artistic world where you find artists actually taking upon themselves that kind of activism.
Jack: Well, Jeff McKissic could build a concrete monument to the orange, or Nester Topchy can build his big metal tower over there, and no one can say "No, by golly." There's a strange permission for this stuff to pop up all over Houston - which you're not going to find in Tampa, or Dallas, or Atlanta. I guarantee you that in San Francisco you'd get a ticket on your car before you were able to nail a couple of two-by-fours together in any overt way You have to scrape the gum off the side-walk in front of your house in that city, it's an ordinance. We [The Art Guys] recently put these giant things out on the corner and we kept waiting, and we're still waiting, for the city to come knock on the door and say "Hey you guys: you don't have a permit for those things. Take them down." But they haven't.
Stephen: I really think that the lack of zoning, the lack of that kind of structure allows for artists to just do things like that. I think that it might occur in other places if people were allowed to. Don't you think?
Michael: It's worth remembering that Jeff McKissic was constantly harassed by City of Houston building officials and couldn't get an occupancy permit until just before his death. And after he died his neighbors burned down his house. So, there was a little tension in the neighborhood and in a way it took outside validation for people in the neighborhood to come to terms with it. It seems that Tracy's comments and the explorations of Surpik Angelini and the TransArt Foundation point out that it's not only about a lack of rules, but about the whole notion of interactivity, of making art in the community while engaging people in the community. It's something that has developed in Houston since the Orange Show [-- the 1970s]. The general public may not at first recognize a lot of this as art, so gaining their tolerance if not acceptance is a big part of getting something like that going.
Stephen: Well, it seems that what happens is that people create public space. Certainly, Jim Pirtle's Notsuoh - which is a coffee shop, night club, and performance space -- has become a public space of sorts for people who are attracted to its provocative atmosphere, which you can especially see late at night and on weekends, when hoards of affluent young people are crowding into the clubs on either side. Right in the midst of all these people paying fortunes for very typical entertainment you have this very subversive "construct," a public place where the most extraordinary things are happening. Where culture is being made by people instead of just being consumed.
John: That kind of spontaneous creation of public space occurs in other ways as well, but it's an opportunity that the artists have seized and I think they've made a kind of art that's co-terminus with public space. Places the public can come to and participate in that produce this sort of energy and excitement -- even if in small ways.